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Coronavirus cases again on the rise in Hillsborough County

The jump in COVID-19 cases comes as more businesses will reopen Friday.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group, during the group's April 27th meeting.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group, during the group's April 27th meeting. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published Jun. 4, 2020
Updated Jun. 4, 2020

TAMPA — The number of COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough County is continuing to rise, but the fatality rate is not, health officials said Thursday.

The explanation, they said, is that most new cases are not among the elderly or others more vulnerable to the respiratory illness. The growth rate is highest among working-age people from 15 to 64.

The number of people hospitalized, 172, remained the same as a week ago. Of those, 38 are being treated in intensive care units.

But, test results showed 450 new cases over the past week, said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County. A week ago, the number of new cases had increased by 250, a jump attributed to the increased availability of testing.

Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County.
Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The most recent increase, however, comes as the number of test results received by the county remains flat.

“Obviously we want this measure to be low and decreasing,’’ Holt told the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group Thursday afternoon.

As it did a week ago, the rise sparked concern among the elected leaders serving on the Emergency Policy Group.

“Is there a particular part of our reopening plan that perhaps is happening too rapidly for our county?’’ asked Temple Terrace Vice Mayor Andy Ross.

Holt didn’t offer a direct answer, but a few minutes earlier had said:

“The general public is well informed on how to protect themselves and others. I respect and trust our community to use the freedom of choice to do what is best.’’

Through June 3, the 14-day average of positive test results is 3 percent. A week ago, Kevin Wagner, the principle business analyst for the county’s department of health care services, said the two-week average was 2.45 percent.

“I’m pretty concerned,’’ said Commissioner Sandy Murman. “We’ve got these protests still going on and you know those are like incubators for the virus.’’

Related: Increase in coronavirus cases worries Hillsborough emergency board

Holt emphasized a need for continued public education on social distancing, facial coverings and avoiding crowds, particularly in small, enclosed spaces.

“I think we better get some strong messaging back out there and not be complacent and hope it goes away,’’ said Murman.

The data release came a day before additional businesses, like bars, music venues and movie theaters can reopen at 50 percent capacity, according to an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. The order also recommended people avoid gatherings of more than 50 people.

“This is something that is very frightening. The bars are the locations where you have close proximity …’’ said Mayor Jane Castor.

Both the mayor and Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski said law enforcement agencies would not have sufficient personnel to try to enforce the capacity limitations.

“Really, to try to enforce this would be impossible,’’ said Castor.

But, the concern didn’t translate into a policy recommendation from the emergency police group. The panel voted 5-3 killing a recommendation from Commissioner Kimberly Overman to allow the public to wear facial coverings in public and private settings unless prohibited by federal or state law. The measure was supported by Overman, Castor and Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr.

Overman said she made the recommendation because constituents told her their employers had discouraged workers from wearing facial coverings while on duty. Others balked, saying the measure was inappropriate for the emergency policy group to consider.

"I don’t want to have this overstep without a lot of research and data,'' said Plant City Mayor Rick Lott.

But Overman emphasized it was only a recommendation, not a mandate, that would allow the public to protect itself in private settings.

It marked the third time the group debated a policy on face coverings.

In mid-April, at the height of the safer-at-home order, the group declined to act on Castor’s proposed mandate for residents to wear face coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies and other sites while conducting essential public tasks. During the same meeting, Castor and Overman found themselves on the short end of a vote by the group to just issue a strong recommendation for people to wear masks.

Three weeks later, the group heard the results of public opinion polling by the county and HCP Associates that said three-quarters of the respondents were serious about wearing facial coverings while conducting essential services.

Related: Commissioner Les Miller says people aren't following face-covering recommendation

But Miller’s own observations contradicted that sentiment on May 11. Miller voiced concerns then about public apathy to wearing face coverings, after he made two trips to the grocery store. Miller’s comments came a week after the state began its initial phased-in reopening of businesses services.

Likewise, the preliminary results of an ongoing public opinion survey found the public’s greatest concerns about reopening were: people not following social distancing, 63 percent; people not wearing face coverings, 53 percent; and people not self-quarantining when they felt ill, 52 percent. Fifty-two percent also said they wanted employers to require workers to wear face coverings.

The preliminary data represented 10,000 responses to a survey that is continuing until at least next week. It is being conducted by the county and Eric M. Eisenberg, dean of the University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences.

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