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The Pandemic Puzzle

Now in the thick of the COVID-19 outbreak, Central Floridians are beginning to put together the pieces that will give them a clearer picture of what lies ahead.

For many under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order, life over the past month has been made up of social distancing, restaurant takeout, closed down schools and businesses, and anxiousness over what happens next.

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen what the “after” of the coronavirus pandemic will look like and when it will really begin. But in the meantime, Greater Orlando residents and organizations are doing what they can, including sewing masks for neighbors and front line workers, pivoting businesses models to serve the changed landscape and trying to find peace quarantined at home with their families.

The Health Care Response
One of Central Florida’s largest health systems says it’s seeing some promise from using a combination of repurposed medications on patients who are seriously ill from COVID-19.

AdventHealth has started using remdesivir and sarilumab—the first of which is normally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and the other originally intended for patients who’ve contracted Ebola— after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave hospitals the go ahead to utilize these drugs outside their prescribed uses.

Physicians administering sarilumab are hoping to see it reduce inflammation in the lungs of coronavirus patients as it has done in joints for people with arthritis. Meanwhile, remdesivir is being used on patients to inhibit virus reproduction. To receive these drugs, patients must be in intensive care and receiving oxygen support.

Jeff Grainger, a spokesperson for AdventHealth, says the hospital system has been planning for a surge in patients including bolstering testing capabilities, shoring up supplies and updating staffing options.

Due to an overwhelming number of donations to the hospitals, everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) to food from local restaurants, AdventHealth has set up an online hub to help get these items to their intended destinations.

“We are humbled and feel blessed by the outpouring of support from our community,” Grainger says. “It’s overwhelming. While our team is here for you, we ask that you please stay home for us. Staying home prevents the spread of this virus and that’s the most important thing right now.”

Orlando’s other major health system, Orlando Health, is also asking people to take precautions including using nonmedical cloth masks in public to reduce spread and seeking information from trusted sources.

Nicole Ray, an Orlando Health spokesperson, says the hospital system also asks that people check in on healthcare workers’ well-being and express gratitude.

In an email she said, “Expressing appreciation and understanding can go a long way.”

And there is a special way for Central Floridians who have recovered from coronavirus to help. OneBlood, a nonprofit blood bank that serves the Southeastern United States, says it is collecting plasma from people who have beat COVID-19 so it can be used in an FDA-approved experimental treatment. The plasma will be transfused to people with life-threatening coronavirus infections with the idea being that the donor has developed antibodies to the virus and those antibodies can be used to boost the immune system of other people.

The Academic Response
On April 18, Gov. DeSantis declared that all schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year, meaning students will go into the summer break without ever returning to their classrooms.

Prior to this announcement at a April meeting of the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Board, members discussed sending a letter to the governor asking for “local flexibility” in reopening schools since they had concerns about safety of students, faculty and staff.

In the same meeting, deputy superintendent Maria Vaquez relayed that the chief academic officer and learning community staff are currently planning what summer school will look like and they are starting to work on plans for the fall should schools still be advised to continue distance learning.

Neighboring district Seminole County Public Schools has announced contingency plans for holding its high school graduations in June or July. Meanwhile, OCPS has postponed graduation ceremonies and is working on its own alternatives.

OCPS is also doing its part to support health care workers. Orlando Technical College recently donated its store of medical supplies to local hospitals including masks, surgical and exam gloves, disposable gowns and protective goggles.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) has announced that its summer semester will take place online but has not come to a decision regarding its fall semester. Dr. Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services says if students return to campus in the fall, it could be under different conditions than when they left.

“It remains to be determined what things will look like in six months and 12 months, but clearly it’s going to be different,” he says. “COVID-19 will still be a potential threat and we have to be vigilant that there could be another epidemic wave that’ll come through our community and our country in the fall.”

Deichen has been with UCF’s student health services for 19 years and overseen other health threats to the campus including swine flu and Zika. He says this is the first time the campus has closed during his tenure because of a communicable disease.

UCF Student Health Services has adapted to the current situation by using telehealth and curbside dispensing for its pharmacy clients. The university has also partnered with Aventus Biolabs to offer drive-thru testing on campus.

“I think it’s important that we maintain optimism,” Deichen says. “And even though we’re approaching the peak of the epidemic here in Central Florida, I’m extremely optimistic that we’re going to get through this. … And I bet you we’re going to come up with innovative approaches that will help us to forgo future threats and keep people healthier.”

The Community Response
With schools closed, activities and events canceled and families quarantined at home together, Central Floridians are striving to find balance and ways to keep spirits up.

Andrew Cole, president of the East Orlando Chamber of Commerce, says he, his wife and his daughter are all trying to figure out how to find space to work in the same house.

“My wife and I are both employed and she’s got the dining room as her office,” he says. “I’m sequestered either on the patio or in a bedroom. My daughter is doing online learning, so she has the computer in the office.”

Cole’s daughter is in fourth grade and he and his wife are parenting at the same time that they’re trying to work, which brings its own challenges.

“She just wants to have some mom and dad time, but you’re on a call or on a webinar,” he says.

Recognizing that this is a struggle many people working from home are having, Cole says he is finding the humor in it, and so at a recent virtual meeting, he asked people to share the funniest thing they’ve seen in the background of someone’s video call. Answers ranged from kids making funny faces to Christmas decorations lingering from December.

When families do get a break from work and school, they’re trying to find activities to enjoy together that still allow for social distancing.

For a while, Wild Florida’s Drive-Thru Safari was one attraction that was able to give people some entertainment from the safety of their own cars. Reacting in real time to the evolving situation, the park made it so people could enjoy this one attraction—which allows people to drive their cars on a designated path and view more than 100 native and exotic animals roaming freely—without ever exiting their vehicles or having to interact with any of the park’s staff.

Sam Haught, co-owner of Wild Florida, says the drive-thru was recently seeing about 4,500 people a day, when normally it would have about 600 visitors coming through.

“And it was cars full of mom and dad, grandma and kids, and just so thrilled that there was something they could go and do and enjoy outside their house,” he says. “And we felt like we were doing the right thing.”

When Osceola County put its stay-at-home order in place, Wild Florida was exempt from it because their drive-thru park allowed for social distancing. But, when Gov. DeSantis issued the state’s stay-at-home mandate, the park had to close.

Haught says Wild Florida is asking for an exemption from the governor to reopen, considering golf courses and other such businesses are allowed to be open.

“We just wanted to be good stewards and try to run our business as responsibly as possible,” he says.

Central Floridians sticking close to home have figured out ways to amuse not just themselves but their neighbors, too. Some have put Christmas decorations up for others to enjoy. Meanwhile, chalk drawings and messages of hope abound on neighborhood sidewalks.

Additionally, because pictures with the Easter Bunny could not happen this year, some photographers have taken to snapping “porch portraits,” photos of families done in front of their homes with the photographer keeping a safe distance.

The Makers Response
When Bonnie Lewis started seeing news reports about coronavirus and the lack of face masks for front line workers, she figured, with her background in textiles, patternmaking and sewing, that she could help.

So, after spending a week researching fabrics that would provide the best filtering when used as face masks, Lewis, along with her neighbor Anne Ramee, launched Orlando Face Mask Strong, a group that’s equipping Orlando residents to make masks at home and get them to front line workers.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance saying that simple cloth masks made from household items or common materials is acceptable, Lewis wanted to make sure the masks Orlando Face Mask Strong produced were both made from readily available material and of the best possible filtering ability.

“I was watching people make cotton face masks,” she says. “If you think of cotton, you think airy and breathable. And I’m watching all these makers make cotton masks, but knowing you’re only going to get a 3% to 16% filter out of a cotton mask.”

In her research, Lewis found that masks used by medical professionals are generally made from surgical-grade nonwoven polypropylene. At the same time, many reusable shopping bags are made from commercial-grade nonwoven polypropylene.

“There is no official research out there about homemade masks made out of commercial-grade nonwoven polypropylene.” Lewis says. “But from my expert guess, I’m going to say it’s better than anything else being worked on.”

Lewis made a free pattern for a simple face mask and put it online. And then, she and Ramee mobilized a team to solicit donations of reusable bags and they started delegating tasks to people who wanted to help.

“Our mission is to get as many masks as possible made by people in the community for people serving the community,” Lewis says.

Rifle Paper Co., which is headquartered in Winter Park, recently partnered with Orlando Face Mask Strong and donated fabric to be used in making face masks.

Currently, the Orlando Face Mask Strong’s Facebook page has more than a 1,000 members. These members have created and donated masks to Whole Foods, the office of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a local fire department, and medical offices such as one of AdventHealth’s local orthopedic departments. Lewis says the group is currently working on a huge order for the Orlando Police Department.

Another local organization that is doing its part in equipping health care personnel is local 3D-printed bionic arm maker Limbitless Solutions. In March, the nonprofit announced that it had pivoted from making bionic arms to manufacturing parts for disposable face shields.

Limbitless is 3D printing pieces for face shields as a part of a nationwide coalition created by manufacturing company Stratasys, which will do the final assembly and distribution.

“We are honored to be a small part of a network committed to supporting our community’s access to additional resources,” co-founder of Limbitless Albert Manero said in a press release.

Limbitless’ face shield parts are personalized with messages intended for the first responders that will wear them including the words “love,” “thank you,” “compassion” and “hope.”

Although its libraries are currently closed, the Orange County Library System is also helping fill the need for personal protective equipment.

Using 3D printers and supplies borrowed from the OCLS Fab Lab—a makerspace used for classes and for DIY projects located in the Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center—library staff members are printing face shield visors at home.

“The Melrose Center’s Fab Lab team is really happy to be able to join the maker community’s efforts to help our health care workers,” said Jim Myers, department head of the Melrose Center, in a press release. “They are a focused and energized bunch, and glad to be in a position to make a small difference. I’m really proud of them.”

The library’s 3D printers take about two hours to create the face shield parts and OCLS staff has been able to make more than 40 visors, which have been delivered to Orlando Health where they are assembled and sterilized before being used by health care workers.

The Arts Response
With a large share of revenue for arts organizations coming from live shows, the cancellation of performances to conform to social distancing measures has been a burden on local theater troupes, dance companies and musical groups.

Orlando Shakes, The Orlando Rep, Opera Orlando and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra have all postponed or cancelled productions.

The Orlando Ballet has gone as far as canceling the rest of its 2019-2020 season. Because of the steep financial cost of doing so, the organization has asked patrons to donate the cost of their ticket refunds to help sustain the ballet through a fiscally tough time.

“Although the decision to cancel upcoming programming was extremely difficult, I know it is for the greater good and safety of our organization and our supporters,” said Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill, in a press release. “I have so much gratitude for our dancers and patrons who are being incredibly patient during this process. … I hope to see the Central Florida community at our productions next season. We can all use a little joy, and that’s exactly what we will bring.”

Although the ballet’s dance school is closed as well, its instructors are still making an effort to get Central Floridians dancing—at home, that is. Instructors have recorded videos for adults and school-age children to follow along to. Knowing that many children are completing their schooling at home, the ballet has also partnered with Orange County Public Schools to provide live virtual classes to students.

Called “OCPS Arts Behind the Screen: Orlando Ballet,” these classes are held twice a week for elementary, middle and high school students and taught by professional dancers.

Other artists are taking to the internet to connect with the community and raise funds too.
An assistant professor at UCF, Elizabeth Brendel Horn teaches a graduate course called Theatre for Social Change. When the coronavirus epidemic interrupted her class, Horn decided to take it as an opportunity to incorporate it into the curriculum.

So, she tasked her students with gathering stories from artists about how they’ve been affected by the coronavirus and then turning those stories into something that could be shared on a live stream.

The result was “Creative Isolation: The American Artists Project,” a production put on by the graduate students together, but while they were all apart. The live stream premiered on April 6 and included a link where people could donate to artists to help them through a time where most of their incomes are significantly reduced because of canceled shows and other gigs.

“There are two pieces of being an artist, if you do that professionally,” Horn says. “The one piece is the joy that you get creating art. And the other piece is that financial component, your livelihood.”

Horn’s graduate class is not the only artist group to take to online streaming as a way of connecting to an at-home audience. A new digital series from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra has philharmonic musicians discussing music and doing solo performances in front of their computers. Meanwhile, Opera Orlando is doing a weekly livestream titled The High Note to chat with artists about everything opera. And a couple local actors are using their talents to live stream readings of children’s books.

“People are really hungry for that entertainment right now and the type of entertainment that is not, you know, binge-watching something on Netflix, but that allows you to feel like you’re connected with artists on a more personal level,” Horn says. “Whether they be artists from your local community or artists who have created some original new work or artists that you’re able to engage with in a chat setting while they perform all of those things—it’s clear that stories and connection are really relevant to us right now.”

The Business Response
The Orlando Economic Partnership, which houses the city’s regional chamber and works to grow economic prosperity, is conducting a series of surveys to measure the impact of coronavirus on local businesses. Its first survey, completed at the end of March, revealed that three quarters of companies across the Orlando region are feeling negative impacts from the crisis and that half of the businesses surveyed only have eight weeks or less cash on hand.

To help small businesses navigate this unprecedented time, the partnership has created the Business Recovery Assistance Collaborative Engagement (BRACE) Program to help small- and medium-sized companies find resources. The program comes as the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, part of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, received an additional $310 billion after its initial $349 billion dried up.

Other area chambers are reaching out to businesses to help as well.

The West Orange Chamber of Commerce (WOCC) has made its events virtual and has brought in various speakers as a part of its coping with COVID series including a CPA and, most recently, a mental health counselor.

President of the WOCC, Stina D’Uva says the hurting of one business starts a chain of hurting for others.

“A restaurant not being able to have the volume—that affects the supplier,” she says. “It affects the drivers of the supply. So it’s all a trickle down.”

The East Orlando Chamber has created several Facebook groups for different business sectors like restaurants, nonprofits, etc., to keep its members connected and allow them to share information between one another. The chamber has also been hosting webinars and researching and sharing resources for local businesses.

As head of the East Orlando Chamber of Commerce, Cole says he’s concerned but sees opportunities for some businesses during this time.

“The ones that have funds and have reserves, they’re going to be able to be fine, but there’s going to be casualties,” he says. “With that, entrepreneurs will find another way or find something new. I think there are opportunities through this where needs have been coming out, where I’ve seen companies that have shifted their production to things that help the health care industry. … And I think it may open the eyes to other opportunity, which is another positive of what people can do to make good in a bad situation.”

So, while Central Floridians may not know when life will go back to normal, there is hope that some good will come out of the bad. In the meantime, the Orlando community continues to stay strong by leaning on one another and rising to the occasion.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s May 2020 issue.