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Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough leaders hope to join forces to fight coronavirus

Elected officials pledged to share resources and unify their response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a joint conference call Tuesday

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Elected officials from across Tampa Bay convened for a coronavirus conference call Tuesday – sharing updates, concerns and opportunities for local governments to work together to try to unify the region’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Obviously, each of us know our communities are hurting in many different ways right now, and it just makes sense for us to work together to identify what else we can do to support our citizens and rebuild our economy once this crisis is over,” said Mike Moore, chairman of Pasco County’s Board of County Commissioners and organizer of the regional meeting.

It wasn’t the robust discussion envisioned in his invitations, but Moore did succeed in getting Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, newly elected Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and the county commission chairs from both Hillsborough and Pinellas to join the line.

Invites went out after the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional advocacy group for business leaders, sent letters to political leaders urging them to work together to fend off the encroaching virus with a “clear and consistent policy to apply for all of Tampa Bay.”

Attempting to weather the pandemic in a haphazard, piecemeal fashion would only make it easier for COVID-19 to devour the entire region, the letter warned.

Related: Regional business group urges common political response to coronavirus

During the call, the group vowed to work together to ensure that, once the crisis has passed, job fairs and efforts to boost tourism and employment figures collaborate across all three counties. Schools in each of their districts should plan to reopen at the same time, and government efforts to secure a slice of the billions of dollars in available federal aid should represent the entire region.

“When we get to the recovery phase, we just want to help our people get back to work as soon as possible and we should take advantage of the fact that we know people here cross over, live in one county and work somewhere else,” Moore said.

More immediately, local governments pledged to provide resources like face shields and masks, gloves and antibacterial gel whenever they could.

Nationally, health officials fear local governments will soon “miss the window” for testing patients for COVID-19, Castor said. Other communities are beginning to pivot to testing patients for antibodies to the virus — “basically to find out the number of people who have already had this and were able to get through it without even knowing they had it and now have an immunity,” Castor said.

Identifying those who carry an immunity to the coronavirus would help bring those individuals back to work, helping to care for those infected with the virus, Castor said. Hillsborough received 1,000 test collection kits on Saturday, County Commission Chairman Les Miller said, and got 100 more kits from the private sector. That was enough for the county to resume making appointments for testing at its drive-thru sample collection site in the parking lot of Raymond James Stadium.

The region’s four largest health care providers – Baycare, Tampa General Hospital, Advent Health and HCA – have also begun testing patients in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, officials said.

Hospitals in Hillsborough County aren’t at surge capacity just yet, but they have seen a spike in the number of respiratory patients and ventilator use, Castor said. According to Hillsborough Department of Health Director Dr. Douglas Holt, the county has about 70 ventilators and has placed an order for 500 more.

Related: Hillsborough strikes deal for hotel beds, Yuengling Center to house patients

Hospitals in both Pasco and Pinellas are at about 30 percent capacity, largely due to the statewide order to halt all elective surgeries.

One Hillsborough hospital has begun exploring ways to house overflow patients in eight fully-staffed cruise ships forced to ride out the coronavirus crisis docked in Port Tampa Bay, Castor said.

Related: Tampa sets up tent city so homeless can shelter in place

One of the biggest issues facing the region is housing the homeless and ensuring they follow social distancing guidelines.

“We’re having a real problem with homeless not following social distancing, especially the hardcore homeless who have nothing to lose, and I’m afraid of them becoming a petri dish where it’s just spreading,” said Hibbard, Clearwater’s mayor.

Hillsborough is working to provide temporary shelters to 100 homeless and Pinellas is working with a local hotel to provide rooms in two separate buildings

“We’ll let you know how it works out,” Castor said.

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