More than two weeks after some of the state’s top elected officials and sheriffs attended a conference in Bonita Springs, at least 13 attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19.
Six sheriffs and Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch were among the Florida Sheriff’s Association conference attendees to report a positive test, though it is still unclear where they contracted the virus.
Some of the conference’s attendees also participated in a campaign event with President Donald Trump later that week in Tampa. However, none of the Florida sheriffs who tested positive were identified as being at that event.
On Friday, two more sheriffs who attended the conference were reported to have had positive tests.
Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter tested positive but has returned to work, spokesman Murray Smith said, adding that four deputies who did not attend the conference also have tested positive.
St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara confirmed Friday that he tested positive. In an interview with TCPalm.com, Mascara said he had “no doubt” he contracted the virus at the conference.
More: St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara tested positive for COVID-19 after attending statewide conference
FSA spokeswoman Nanette Schimpf said Friday that at least four members of the association’s staff who worked the conference have since tested positive, prompting it to begin working remotely.
A fifth association staff member, who did not attend the conference, has since tested positive.
“Everyone is fine now, and we’ll be going back to the office next week,” Schimpf said.
The Sheriff’s Association’s summer conference, which usually draws more than 500 attendees, including 60 sheriffs, was substantially limited in events and attendance.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, whose agency hosted the July 26-28 event at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, had described the event as a “skeleton crew.”
“Many tables were empty,” Marceno previously told USA TODAY Network – Florida. “They cut everything back and everything was social distanced. It was real strict.”
Efforts to reach the Hyatt for comment were unsuccessful.
One of Marceno’s employees who attended the event also later tested positive, though it’s unclear how the employee contracted the virus, he said.
“To the best of my knowledge, we had approximately 40-plus employees come and go from the conference,” Marceno wrote in a text message Friday. “One employee tested positive, but there was no way of telling where they contracted COVID, if before or after the conference.”
Marceno said the employee did not exhibit any symptoms and has returned to work in great health.
In neighboring Collier County, Sheriff Kevin Rambosk also attended the event and tested negative, spokeswoman Karie Partington wrote in an email Friday.
Mascara previously told TCPalm.com that he thought 43 or 44 sheriffs attended this year’s conference.
Previously: Trump meets with Florida sheriffs who had attended conference with COVID-positive colleague
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood was the first attendee to announce a positive test after experiencing symptoms a few days later.
He has since recovered and returned to work, public information officer Andrew Gant said.
“He’s feeling a lot better than he was,” Gant said. “I know he’s been gradually working his way back into his workout routine, which is a crucial part of his day. He said he lost about 14 pounds while he was sick, so I think he’s still building his endurance back to where it was.”
Along with a persistent headache, which lingered after symptoms of fever, nausea and insomnia subsided, the worst part of contracting the virus for Chitwood was the quarantine itself, Gant said.
Joining the list of infected sheriffs on Aug. 4 was Levy County Sheriff Bobby McCallum.
“He has not returned to work, but he’s feeling like he’s on the upside,” Undersheriff Brett Beauchamp said Thursday. “He’s still running the office from email.”
Although McCallum believed he had contracted the virus after meeting with an infected sheriff, Beauchamp said he was unaware of any contact tracing to confirm that.
The other sheriffs who attended and have since tested positive are Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson and Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz, the Pensacola News Journal and Gainesville Sun reported.
More: Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson positive for COVID-19 after attending conference
The Santa Rosa and Gilchrist county sheriff’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.
While she has tested negative, Attorney General Ashley Moody appeared in pictures posted on social media with Schultz and McCallum during the conference.
“As soon as the Florida Sheriff’s Association notified us of potential exposure, Attorney General Moody immediately was tested for COVID-19 and tested negative,” Press Secretary Kylie Mason wrote in an email Friday.
Moody also had brief contact with Chitwood, Mason wrote.
Department of Corrections spokesman Rob Klepper said the agency was not providing health updates on Inch. Deputy Secretary Ricky Inch, who also attended the conference, tested positive as well.
Klepper did not have any additional information about where Inch could have contracted the virus beyond what was reported in an initial news release that stated he had tested positive after attending the conference and visiting Columbia Correctional Institution.
Prior to Chitwood getting sick, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office had already enacted stringent protocols to protect employees from COVID-19.
Gant said deputies have reusable cotton masks and N95 masks to use when contacting a sick person or a location that has been flagged by the Department of Health for COVID-19 exposure.
The agency also performs temperature checks and has installed UV lights in its air handling system at its communications center to go along with deep cleanings of its facilities, Gant said.
“The main step we took following his diagnosis was to provide testing here at the office for all of us who are in contact with him on a regular basis,” Gant said.
McCallum’s positive test has not impacted any of the Levy Sheriff’s Office protocols, which include regular temperature checks and using masks, Beauchamp said.
In addition to the six sheriffs who attended the conference, Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson also tested positive. It has not been confirmed whether attended the conference.
WESH-TV was the first media outlet Thursday to report that Gibson had tested positive a few weeks ago.
Despite the positive tests hitting law enforcement, there’s still a difference in opinion on protocols, including wearing masks.
The Ocala Star-Banner reported Tuesday that Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods forbade his employees from wearing masks in most situations.
“My order will stand as is when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my Office – masks will not be worn,” Woods wrote in an Aug. 11 email obtained by the Star-Banner.
More: Coronavirus symptoms put Volusia Sheriff Mike Chitwood out of commission
Woods is allowing for exemptions, such as working at the jail, courthouse, public schools and hospitals and when dealing with a potentially infected person.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Friday that Woods attended the conference and tested negative afterward.
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who wore her mask throughout the recent conference and is in great health, is still religiously wearing her mask, spokesman Art Forgey said.
Meanwhile, as he’s getting back to work, Chitwood warned about the seriousness of the virus, telling the Daytona Beach News-Journal that he wouldn’t wish this on his enemies.
“This is no joke. I got to tell you,” Chitwood told the News-Journal more than a week ago. “This is the longest I’ve ever been sick.”
Naples Daily News reporter Ryan Mills and Gainesville Sun editor Mickie Anderson contributed to this report.
Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or [email protected]