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Hillsborough has the tests, now it needs people to get tested

The county’s policy on testing has changed: You no longer need to show symptoms of coronavirus to get tested.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published Apr. 27, 2020|Updated Apr. 27, 2020

TAMPA — Public health officials told Hillsborough’s Emergency Policy Group Monday that the county has enough testing capacity to reopen the county safely.

It just needs to get more people tested.

Health officials said Monday the county’s policy has changed: Now, anyone who wants to get tested can get a test. You no longer have to show symptoms.

“We’re not turning anyone down. We’re open for business,” said Tim Dudley, the county’s emergency management director.

County testing sites include the drive-thru operation at Raymond James Stadium at 4201 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, as well as three community centers around the county: Lee Davis Center at 3402 N 22nd St. in East Tampa; SouthShore Community Center at 201 14th Ave. SE in Ruskin; and the Plant City Community Resource Center at 307 N Michigan Ave. in Plant City.

Appointments can be scheduled through the county’s call center at (813) 272-5900. between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. The tests are free and health insurance is not required.

Hospital and private testing sites may have different testing policies.

Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, said local hospitals have enough personal protective equipment and testing capacity to ramp up efforts.

Currently, between 500 and 700 tests a day are being completed, which is well below the county’s daily test capacity of 4,000, Lockwood said. The county would need to test about 2,250 people a day to safely reopen, he said.

“We have the capacity to do it. We’re just not doing it,” Lockwood said.

Reasons for that vary. Officials have been reluctant to loosen restrictions on testing until now, and many residents are terrified of getting tested or just unaware of the option, Lockwood said.

In order to reopen the county, the strategy needs to move from mitigation like the safer-at-home order to containment, in which testing and contact tracing — determining who an infected person has had contact with — take priority.

The University of South Florida’s College of Public Health has up to 200 volunteers to bolster contact tracing efforts, said Douglas Holt, the county’s health department director.

Holt said the county’s infection rate has been decreasing, dropping to 90 new cases over the past week from 180 new cases the week before.

With more testing and tracing, Lockwood said, the county can start to get back to normal.

“We’ll be able to function fairly normally," Lockwood said.

Dudley said the county had more than 7,500 test kits on hand for its four sites. The county’s mobile unit had visited 18 people last week and is scheduled to visit 20 more this week.

“We’re just not seeing this mass rush to these collection sites,” Dudley told the group.

County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the county’s message about who can be tested has been muddled. She said the county needs to clarify that people who aren’t showing signs of the coronavirus can be tested.

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“That hasn’t been clear,” Overman said.

Later in the meeting, the group discussed its role moving forward, especially regarding economic recovery. Essentially, it has none.

County Attorney Christine Beck and County Administrator Mike Merill emphasized the lead agency for planning and managing the recovery phase of the emergency is Hillsborough County and elected commissioners, not the Emergency Policy Group.

Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively had requested that discussion. Both she and Sheriff Chad Chronister previously raised questions about the group’s function when it comes to economic recovery and disbursing federal dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The county expects to receive $256 million from the federal government for economic recovery. Potential efforts include providing businesses with capital to make safety modifications as they reopen, job creation incentives and training and job placement assistance for residents.

Merrill has said those spending decisions rest with the commission. Still, even commissioners want to be sure of that.

Commissioner Mariella Smith has asked for a similar discussion during the May 6 commission meeting. She asked Merrill “to address economic development strategies, economic recovery initiatives and plans, and all budgeting decisions to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) as opposed to the Emergency Policy Group (EPG).’’

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