First Hillsborough coronavirus death comes as state nears 2,500 cases

Florida is now tracking 800 more cases than it was just the day before, totaling 2,484.
Baycare healthcare workers and staff guide vehicles at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Raymond James Stadium site on Wednesday, March 25, 2020  in Tampa.  Residents that wish to be tested had to be approved and registered online before arriving at the site.
Baycare healthcare workers and staff guide vehicles at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Raymond James Stadium site on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Tampa. Residents that wish to be tested had to be approved and registered online before arriving at the site. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 26, 2020|Updated March 27, 2020

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Amid Florida’s steepest uptick in coronavirus cases, the midweek death of a Hillsborough County man brings the state’s death count to 29.

Florida has added more than 800 known cases since Wednesday morning, according to state Department of Health data released Thursday night, bringing it to 2,484 overall.

“The curve will continue to rise precipitously,” said Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy. “The best data indicate that we have not yet begun to see the head of this monster, let alone the body.”

“It’s spreading at a pretty consistent rate,” said Dr. Melissa Levine, professor of public health and family medicine at USF. “We definitely haven’t peaked.”

The Hillsborough man, 69, died at home, according to the county Department of Health. He had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by complications from the easily transmitted virus. His death was the county’s first.

Whether travel played a role is unknown, the state said, adding that the man had not come into contact with another confirmed case. Officials did not disclose other health conditions.

Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties have each counted one death in recent days.

Still, many elements of the disease’s effects remain invisible, including the true number of deaths it has caused, experts said. And just because an area has no cases doesn’t mean there is no virus, Levine said.

In Hillsborough, known cases climbed to 151, making it the fourth hardest-hit county in Florida as measured by confirmed tests.

In the Tampa Bay region, Pinellas had confirmed 65 cases, Pasco 21 and Hernando nine. To the south, Manatee had 25.

Fueling the jump in cases is both the disease’s continued spread and the slow expansion of testing. Experts say that lockdown measures, such as this week’s debut of local stay-at-home orders, will likely take some time to make a dent in the caseload.

Meanwhile, cases will rise for a few reasons, Wolfson said:

People without symptoms, still highly contagious, are posing risks to everybody in their daily encounters. People with mild symptoms, perhaps brushing off orders to isolate, are exposing others. And travelers continue to arrive, with some positive cases undoubtedly in their ranks.

Without enough tests to truly grasp the spread, Wolfson said, it’s impossible to pin down and limit these clusters of contagion. The dominoes will keep tipping, in essence, with the most severe effects for the elderly and those with prior health conditions.

“Until we obtain and deploy more tests, we will not know enough to effectively mitigate,” he said.

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About 17 percent of Florida residents with known cases have been hospitalized, according to state figures. Though Hillsborough has far more cases in all, Pinellas County leads in hospitalizations, with 20 to date.

A clue to that disparity might be age. In Pinellas, the median age is about two decades older than in Hillsborough.

Still, no age is spared, Levine said. While children and younger adults generally fare better, other states have seen the bulk of hospitalizations among younger people.

Another factor may be who is seeking testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the first priorities are hospitalized patients and health care workers who are showing symptoms. Many people with mild illness — or those who can’t secure elusive tests — are likely staying home.

Coronavirus is beginning to take its toll on local institutions, from law enforcement agencies to prisons. MacDill Air Force Base is now monitoring five confirmed cases and is limiting movement and services across the Tampa base, said Col. Stephen Snelson, commander of the Air Force’s 6th Air Refueling Wing, on Thursday.

Three initial cases of COVID-19 were reported from within the ranks of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both of which are also headquartered at MacDill.

Base officials have said they will not announce new cases, only the total number discovered there.

Such cases indicate that it’s traveling throughout the community. Less than half of Tampa Bay-area cases are known to be travel-related, the state said. That includes domestic travel destinations like Texas, Colorado and even across Florida, and international destinations like Qatar, Italy and Israel.

Southeast Florida remains the leader in confirmed cases, with 654 in Miami-Dade, 505 in Broward and 174 in Palm Beach counties.

Amid reports of refrigerated trucks parked outside a slammed New York City hospital, and the death of a doctor in Broward County, public health experts pleaded again: Listen to the evidence. Stay home.

“Only fools would expect the government to protect them from the spread of this powerful and deadly disease,” Wolfson said. “Isolation is critical.”

If not for yourself, then for the health care workers and patients who most desperately need the country’s limited resources, Levine said.

“If this gets to a certain level, it will overwhelm all the resources we have,” she said.

Times staff writer Ileana Najarro contributed to this report.

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