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Poll: Most Hillsborough residents serious about wearing masks

Other safety precautions like hand-washing and avoiding crowds score higher, according to a survey

TAMPA — Three-quarters of Hillsborough County residents polled are serious about wearing face coverings in public during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new public opinion survey.

The research showed most county residents do not have strong reservations about wearing a mask, but those who do cited discomfort or an inability to find masks in stores.

The survey by HCP Associates and Hillsborough County included 400 responses to a telephone poll conducted April 17-26 and more than 10,800 online responses through April 29. The data was shared with the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group Monday.

"I agree with them,'' Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. said about the response. "When I go out, which is very seldom, I wear a mask.''

The mask-wearing results are tempered by other safety precautions scoring higher among respondents.

"Three quarters of online survey respondents say that they take wearing a mask in public ‘seriously’ or ‘very seriously.’ Although this is a majority, it represents the lowest of all the safety measures discussed in the survey,'' according to an April 30 memo from Robert S. Allen, Vice President, HCP Associates, and Terri Cordova-Hewitt, analytics and insights analyst for Hillsborough County.

"Safety practices such as washing one’s hands more frequently, cleaning surfaces more often, and avoiding crowded places all have higher degrees of engagement – 90% or more,'' the memo said.

The memo noted conflicting early messages regarding mask use, including a Feb.29 tweet from the U.S. Surgeon General that said, “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!” On April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocated wearing cloth face coverings as an “additional, voluntary public health measure.” And the World Health Organization recommended healthy people only wear masks if they are caring for those who are ill.

The emergency policy group sent its own mixed messages last month by initially stating support for mandatory face coverings for residents, then panning the same proposal three days later. The group also voted down a recommendation for employers to provide masks for workers.

The memorandum said Hillsborough County should continue promoting face coverings "to help overcome the initial messaging and any lingering confusion.''

Approximately one in 150 county residents took the survey so far, with the zip code corresponding to Sun City Center showing the highest number of responses and the University of South Florida campus the fewest.

During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, Dr. Martha Price, a family practice physician, and Dr. Margarita Cancio, an infectious disease specialist, both said private practice doctors lack personal protection equipment. Price said doctors have had little success in obtaining the equipment “except from borrowing from each other and borrowing from dentists.’’

The Emergency Policy Group also received a testing report through April 23, five days before Hillsborough County expanded its diagnostic testing availability by lifting earlier restrictions on who was eligible. The data showed 26,764 tests had been administered, with more than four-fifths of those being conducted by the four private hospital groups: Baycare Health Care, Tampa General, AdventHealth and HCA.

The report by Gene Earley, director of the county’s health care services, said the resumption of elective surgery procedures "will most probably increase testing,'' but also increase demands on hospital resources.

Expanding testing “takes demand, resources and it takes protective equipment and we’re still not all there yet,’’ Earley said..

Timothy Dudley, the county’s emergency management director, said earlier that Hillsborough County tested 2,290 people at four sites last week.

Dr. Douglas Holt, the county’s public health director, said 1.7 percent of the county’s 1.4 million residents have been tested, up from about 1 percent last week. Hillsborough has tested more people than any other county except those with state testing centers like Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval, Holt said.

The number of COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill is also on the decline, Holt said. The number of patients on ventilators fell from eight to four while those in intensive care barely budged, he said.

Public health officials also had encouraging news about outreach efforts. Two state epidemiologists are already working in the county with two more on the way, Holt said.

Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a University of South Florida public health official, said an online survey had collected enough data to start mapping hot spots of residents reporting virus symptoms. To date, 8,484 people have responded with 968 reporting symptoms. The hot spots on the survey appear to be in East Tampa and south county.

In a media call after the meeting, Miller was asked his advice to people thinking about venturing out to a clothing store or restaurant.

If you really want to go, then you should do so. But if you have second thoughts, Miller said, skip it.

“My recommendation is don’t go. Let’s see what happens with the second phase," he said.

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