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Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group to cut back to one weekly meeting

The group, which has coordinated the county’s response to the coronavirus, voted Monday to reduce its meetings to Thursdays
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published May 18, 2020
Updated May 19, 2020

TAMPA — As the state reopens, the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group voted 7-1 Monday to reduce its meetings to once a week.

Since March 12, the group has met on Mondays and Thursdays to debate, and ultimately implement, the county’s safer-at-home order and, briefly, a nightly curfew. They’ve also considered mandatory masks and other issues designed to protect the county’s 1.4 million residents.

But as Gov. Ron DeSantis has reopened Florida this month, the group’s activity has slowed. On Monday, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott proposed eliminating the Monday sessions.

“I don’t see a reason for us to continue to have the Monday meeting. If there is something that comes up, we can always call an emergency meeting,” Lott said.

All the other members agreed except for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

“I disagree. It is a very fluid situation,” Castor said. Residents have become accustomed to twice-weekly meetings, she said.

The idea of reducing the group’s meetings to just Thursdays was first raised by Lott on May 4, the date that DeSantis’ first reopening order took effect.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said at the time that he would welcome the move to a weekly meeting, saying it was time-consuming for his staff to prepare for two meetings a week. Monday, Merrill said he’s in daily contact with public health officials and would quickly alert the group’s chairman, County Commission Chairman Les Miller, if conditions merited an emergency meeting.

At the earlier meeting, Castor argued that the group should wait to see how the first two weeks of reopening progressed.

The group was originally created to deal with weather-related emergencies like hurricanes. Three county commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, the sheriff and the chairperson of the school board are all voting members.

Also Monday, the group learned that the county has established a so-called step-down facility for elderly patients who no longer require hospitalization, but who cannot yet return to their adult-care facilities. Merrill, speaking to reporters afterward, described it as a 60-bed skilled-nursing facility with equipment and resources for patient care. The facility became available Monday. Merrill said he didn’t know if it had received patients yet.

Ten percent of those tested in long-term care facilities show a positive result in Hillsborough County, while the rest of the county population shows positive results in just 1.34 percent of those tested, according to data from the past two weeks. The county has 294 adult care facilities, said Fire Chief Dennis Jones.

Many of the patients are transferred to hospitals even though it may be medically unnecessary, said Dr. Douglas Holt, the Hillsborough director of the state Health Department.

The hospital setting provides necessary monitoring of the patients and also allows the long-term care facilities to investigate the extent of the exposure, he said. The patient, however, must remain out of the adult facility until they have two negative test results at least 24 hours apart. That translates to some patients remaining hospitalized for up to three to six weeks even though they may be more comfortable and better served in a long-term adult facility, Holt said.

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