‘Close the beaches, please:’ Internal emails reveal plea to St. Johns County leaders from associate medical examiner

County defends decision as far fewer people die than internal projection

Medical examiner pleads for beach closures

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Action News Jax investigates St. Johns County leaders possibly ignoring pleas from the medical examiner’s office to close its beaches in March as the coronavirus pandemic was projected to become more widespread.

Associate Medical Examiner Deanna Oleske sent an email to County Administrator Hunter Conrad on March 23, begging him to close the beaches.

At the time, her region of St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties had 21 cases and no deaths.

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“Protect the residents,” Oleske wrote to Conrad. “Close the beaches. please.”

She added that her office is “in a dire situation” because “we are facing numerous issues that are inhibiting us to appropriately staff this office in an expeditious manner before facing a pandemic of unknown proportions.”

Conrad responded two days later saying, “There is no medical evidence (that I’m aware of or have been informed of) that beaches have anything to do with COVID-19.”

On Monday, Conrad told Action News Jax Ben Becker, “A large percentage of our residents wanted the beach open.”

St. Johns County eventually closed its beaches on March 29, one day after pictures surfaced online that showed thousands of people on its beaches. This was in contrast to Jacksonville Beach, which was empty after shutting down eight days earlier.

Oleske followed up by sending an email to county leaders March 30 estimating between 2,500 and 6,800 people could die in St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler from the coronavirus.

So far, that number is nine.

“Is there a concern? Of course,” Conrad said about a possible spike. “However, a lot of behavior modification has taken place”

The county said Oleske is leaving her position May 22. Becker reached out to Oleske for comment on the emails and why she is resigning and is waiting to hear back.