Hillsborough emergency group discusses COVID-19 cases, testing, aid and re-opening issues
By LINDA CHION KENNEY
With pressure mounting to reopen for business, the group charged with addressing emergency COVID-19 issues in Hillsborough County is focused on taking a measured and informed approach to the matter, with an emphasis on testing.
“The blind spot, of course, is that anyone who feels fine can spread the virus,” Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health, told the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group (HCEPG) at its virtual meeting April 20.
Holt urged people to protect their personal space, be extra cautious in groups and “be especially thoughtful around our vulnerable and our elderly.”
“We must assume there will be a resurgence [of the virus] but we just don’t know when or how big,” he added. “We’ll talk about that in the coming weeks.”
Recognizing that only 1 percent of Hillsborough County residents have been tested, Holt said he’d like to see “more than we’re doing now.” He deferred from giving a number, noting the Florida Department of Health is working on that guidance.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Lesley “Les” Miller Jr. is chair of the HCEPG. “We’re talking about opening up; we got to have more people tested,” he said. “No doubt about that.”
According to Timothy Dudley Jr., director of the county’s office of emergency management, 915 tests were collected last week at the Raymond James Stadium collection site. Three more sites were set to open at the Lee Davis Community Resource Center, the Plant City Community Resource Center and the SouthShore Community Resource Center in Ruskin, at 201 14th Ave. S.E.
The HCEPG was to meet again April 23 to discuss reopening issues. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis charged his Re-Open Florida Task Force to issue recommendations by Friday, April 24.
Meanwhile, the HCEPG has been holding virtual meetings to discuss a myriad of topics concerning the coronavirus pandemic, including social-distancing, unemployment, social needs and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Members include Hillsborough County commissioners Sandra Murman and Kimberly Overman; Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister; Hillsborough County School Board Chair Melissa Snively; Andy Ross, vice mayor of Temple Terrace; and Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. Rounding out the group are Jane Castor, Mel Jurado and Rick Lott, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, respectively.
At the group’s April 16 meeting, Holt said “protecting our most vulnerable” is a top priority, especially those living in long-term care facilities. Standards in place include no visitors; no activities; all staff wearing masks; and residents, for the most part, confined to their rooms, where they eat their meals as well.
Commissioner Sandra Murman said she is concerned these standards, while necessary, could affect long-term health.
Holt responded he sees standard precautions continuing, but not to the extreme they are now, with advances likely within the next month that include rapid testing and testing for antibodies.
Ultimately, and across the board, the long-term solution “to this living with COVID-19 is the vaccine,” Holt added.
Kevin Wagner, business analyst with the Florida Department of Health, presented demographic statistics for the 959 residents tested through last week. Of those tested, 53 percent were ages 25 to 54 and 16 percent were ages 55 to 64. Another 17 percent were ages 65 and older.
“The people who are getting this and the people who are spreading it are in the workforce-age range at a higher rate than our seniors,” Overman said, noting this is an important message to get out, about “who needs to get tested, and why it’s important” to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Wagner said officials are working to correct a lag in reporting test results, which leads to days when case numbers spike.
Overall, he added, “the county’s been flat,” with the number of COVID-19 cases accounting for less than 5 percent of the state’s cases, as compared to Miami-Dade and Broward, which accounted for 51 percent.
Those percentages held steady through Monday, April 20, with Hillsborough’s 973 cases accounting for 3.6 percent of the state’s 27,058 total, while the collective 13,735 cases in Miami-Dade and Broward accounted for 50.8 percent. Hillsborough County registered 2.3 percent of the state’s total deaths, compared to 41.9 percent in Miami-Dade and Broward. Overall there were 823 deaths in Florida, including 19 in Hillsborough and 345 in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Bottom line, Wagner said, surveillance and social distancing is key, while testing with quicker results is imperative.
The hope from the beginning, Holt said, “was to implement social distancing to basically flatten the curve, take the peak out and spread it out a little bit so our slope is going up slower.” Based on measures undertaken and model estimates, the county is expected to peak at a lower level than originally expected, he added.
“I see it as very promising, or encouraging evidence that the efforts being made by the community and everyone together is having an impact,” Holt said.
Added Donna Petersen, dean of the University of South Florida College of Public Health, also at the April 16 meeting, the emphasis on identifying cases, contact tracing and quarantine are “keeping us safe as possible until we have a vaccine and can develop herd immunity, which is a place we need to reach before we can go back to anything like normal life.”
Also at the April 16 meeting, Craig Richard, head of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, discussed the council’s recovery task force backed by city and county officials. Richard said the task force is focused on strategies to reemploy and retrain dislocated workers, retain and support local businesses, and allocate wisely federal and state funds for economic recovery.
The HCEPG group at its April 16 meeting stepped up its appeal to residents to wear face coverings. Dudley reported that 317,000 masks, 28,000 face shields, 5,200 gowns, 3,000 goggles and 138,500 pairs of gloves had been delivered in support of Hillsborough health care workers, with more to come.
Donations from the public for medical supplies and homemade masks are being accepted at 250 WestShore Plaza. The collection site is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
People interested in getting tested at one of the four collection sites should call 813-272-5900.
Meanwhile, the county’s Aging Services office is providing Grab-n-Go meals at 26 locations to offset the closing of congregate dining at senior citizen centers.
Visit “StaySafe” at www.HillsboroughCounty.org for location information and for additional coronavirus information, including government closings and cancellations and Feeding Tampa Bay food distributions.
For closed-captioning scripts and to view HCEPG meetings, visit www.HillsboroughCounty.org and search for “Hillsborough Television.” The HCEPG is set to meet April 23 and April 27. For live coverage, visit the county’s YouTube channel, Facebook page, cable television channels (Spectrum 637 and Frontier 22) or website, at www.HCFLGov.net/newsroom.