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Increase in coronavirus cases worries Hillsborough County emergency board

Health officials says the increase is associated with more testing.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group in April
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group in April [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published May 28, 2020
Updated May 28, 2020

TAMPA — An increase in coronavirus cases over the past week left county leaders wondering Thursday what number of new cases might trigger more restrictive recommendations from the Emergency Policy Group.

Dr. Douglas Holt, the state health department director in Hillsborough County, said the number of new cases has increased, with 250 new cases over the past week. But he said that is associated with increased testing.

Hospitalizations also increased over the past week. Thursday, there were 172 people hospitalized with COVID-19, an increase of 24 people over last week.

The 14-day positive test rates remain flat, deaths are trending downward and the county’s hospitals and intensive care units aren’t stressed, Holt said.

Kevin Wagner, the principle business analyst for the county’s department of health care services, said the 14-day rolling average of positive test results dropped from 2.91 percent to 2.45 percent from May 14 to May 28.

More than 20,600 tests have been administered at county sites, said Timothy Dudley, the county’s emergency management director. So far, 3.73 percent of the county’s population has been tested.

“While it’s not out of control, it is partially contained,” Holt said of the pandemic.

He said it was important for residents to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks and make smart choices about their non-essential activities.

The next one to two weeks will be important to determine if stricter mitigation measures may be necessary, Holt said.

Holt’s assessment didn’t put everyone at ease. He referred to it as a “mixed message.”

“I’m concerned because our community has really opened up its activity level,” said County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said she isn’t seeing enough uses of masks by residents.

She and County Commission Chairman Les Miller asked Holt if he had a specific number of new cases that would trigger a recommendation that the county put more restrictive measures back in place.

“This sustained increase, if it continues in the face of flat or not increasing testing, would trigger my concerns. Is there an exact number? I certainly don’t have that exact trigger,'' Holt said.

The county also announced it was partnering with Suncoast Community Health Centers to expand testing locations. Sites are planned to open in the next two weeks in Brandon, Wimauma and Sun City Center.

Melissa Snively, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board, previously asked the county to consider an additional testing site in the Brandon area since residents there were traveling to Raymond James Stadium, Plant City or Southshore for drive-thru testing.

Those facing transportation issues have the option of calling (813) 272-5900 to arrange an appointment with the mobile testing unit.

Next week, the group will consider a request from Commissioner Kimberly Overman to allow private employees the ability wear face coverings in their work sites. Overman said she had been contacted by constituents who said they fear losing their jobs if they wear a face mask at work.

Overman said her motion would recommend “all persons within Hillsborough shall be permitted to wear face covering in public and private settings..’’ It’s not requiring anybody to wear a mask, she said.

Members also received information about the start of a two-week public opinion survey seeking residents’ input on the process of reopening Hillsborough County,

"This is the first step of the larger public engagement effort being led by Dr. Eric Eisenberg (dean of University of South Florida’s College of Arts and Sciences) that will also include social polling and virtual town halls in order to create a community dialogue on reopening efforts,'' Liana Lopez, the county’s chief communications administrator, said in a memo to the group. "The aim of the communications plan is to foster two-way conversation that can help business and public leaders make decisions, guide ongoing communications efforts, and prevent further spread of the virus.''

Lopez and Eisenberg had briefed the policy group on the planned communications effort last week. County officials intend to use information from the anonymous survey to help prepare plans to reopen county services and facilities and to offer resources to residents and businesses. Residents seeking to participate can go to HCFLGov.net/ReopenHC. To take the survey by text, residents should text reopenHC to 73224 or reopenHCEspanol to 73224.

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