Related Story: City by City COVID-19 Cases
By Dan Moffett
Manalapan officials were more than a little perplexed recently when the Florida Division of Emergency Management released statistics that reported 41 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the town of 466 people.
The number was at least five or six times greater than what Town Manager Linda Stumpf believes Manalapan has had.
“It’s not close,” Stumpf said. “The number should certainly be less than 10.”
Officials next door in South Palm Beach experienced the same thing. The state reported 27 cases in the town, population 1,470.
Mayor Bonnie Fischer and Town Manager Robert Kellogg have been tracking cases closely for the last year, and they believe the town had no more than six. They say Town Hall keeps in continuous contact with condo managers and residents, so officials know how many cases they’ve had.
“We know there haven’t been anything near 27 cases,” Fischer said. “It’s that ZIP code problem again.”
Small municipalities across Florida are becoming resigned to the likelihood that the state’s COVID-19 report will not be accurate, and almost always, the number of cases reported will be too high. The reason is “that ZIP code problem.”
The Division of Emergency Management bases its data collection on patients’ ZIP codes, but they are not precise instruments for capturing the cases in small towns, which often share their ZIP code numbers with much larger demographic areas.
For example, Manalapan is part of the 33462 ZIP code area that sprawls more than 6 miles west and includes some 30,000 people living in Lake Worth, Lantana, Atlantis and Hypoluxo.
Manalapan officials say COVID-19 cases from elsewhere in the large ZIP code area are being incorrectly attributed to the small town.
South Palm Beach shares a ZIP code with some 8,800 residents in Palm Beach. The state is mixing in some of them in the case counting.
Kellogg has tried to investigate the state’s methodology — with little result. “The only response I get is that we are included in the Palm Beach ZIP code number of cases,” he said.
Manalapan, too, has looked for answers. “I haven’t been able to get anything specific,” Stumpf said.
Emergency Management in Tallahassee has not responded to requests for comment.
State officials do say, however, that the COVID-19 numbers should be considered preliminary and could require more investigation. “The data in this report are provisional,” a disclaimer says, “and subject to change.”
The state’s counting is particularly annoying to South Palm Beach, because few Florida communities have been as proactive in fighting the virus. The town has handed out 13,000 face masks to residents and brought in the county’s mobile testing unit four times.
“Our town has been very careful,” Fischer said. “The numbers just aren’t right.”