TAMPA — Local elected officials say the latest coronavirus numbers give them new cause for concern as people are venturing out again and demonstrators take to the streets.
For each of the past seven days, every day but Monday, the number of new coronavirus cases reported across Florida has topped 1,000 — a pattern not seen since coronavirus in Florida hit its first peak in early April. Tuesday, the state reported 1,096 new patients and 53 deaths over a 24-hour period. The total number of cases in the state hit 66,000.
Hillsborough County saw its highest single-day return of positive coronavirus test results on Monday with 113. It was the third time in the past week that the county hit a new record.
It was enough to make county officials renew a familiar message in a news release Tuesday evening, urging residents to "diligently practice social distancing and to wear face coverings when out in public.”
On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Phase 2 of his plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy, allowing more businesses to welcome back customers. Tuesday also was the 11th day in a row that demonstrators across Tampa Bay have marched and rallied against police brutality in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on March 25.
“I stated from the very beginning that as we opened up our community we would see an increase in positive cases of COVID-19," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “And we all know, too, that the science shows the COVID-19 virus disproportionately affects black and brown communities, so bringing hundreds of individuals in close contact, talking very loudly — that’s also been shown to increase transmission.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman echoed those concerns but said it’s too soon to know whether demonstrations have contributed to the rise in the number of coronavirus cases. A key figure for Kriseman, and for health officials, is the percentage of tests that turn out positive.
“We want to see it decrease," Kriseman said.
As to whether he would slow down the reopening plans DeSantis put in place, Kriseman said, “If we believe that’s something that we need to do so we don’t see a surge … then that’s something that we’ll do. It’s not going to be based on politics, it’s going to be based on data.”
Florida health officials attributed the rising number of positive tests statewide to a hopeful development — a sharp increase in the number of people getting tested.
Still, the number of positive tests per 100,000 people in Florida is also increasing, said Dr. Douglas Holt, Department of Health director in Hillsborough County. In Hillsborough, the numbers were high at the start of the state’s reopening and are only climbing higher, Holt said.
The number of tests has increased in Hillsborough from about 500 tests per day in May to 1,800 per day this past week. At the same time, the number of deaths has fallen significantly in the county because fewer older people are coming down with the virus as longterm care facilities wind up their campaign to get residents tested.
Now, more of those becoming infected with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, are ages 25 to 44. They account for about 32 percent of all patients in Hillsborough County, dropping the average age of those testing positive from 47 to 44, Holt said.
As patients skew younger, the rate of new hospitalizations has dropped from 127 per day to 110 per day in the past week and the county has recorded a low rate of fatalities — just 3 percent of the 3,000 cases it tracks, Holt said.
But these decreases only tell part of the story, said Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.
Hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, reflecting what happened in the past, Lockwood said. He also noted that Tampa General Hospital has seen a recent uptick in admissions for COVID-19, even as Hillsborough County authorities say the county is in good shape overall in the key measure of hospital occupancy. Coronavirus patients account for about 25 percent.
“So while I suspect the majority of the increase in cases is due to increased testing, a lack of compliance with physical distancing and facial coverings following the re-opening of the county likely accounts for a portion of cases,” Lockwood said. "It is critical that folks socially distance and wear masks in public.”
To help prevent the spread of the virus, Lockwood has recommended 150 tests per 100,000 residents every day, or 2,250 tests per day in Hillsborough County. That’s well above the current level of 1,400 per day.
Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties have already reached the recommended level.
Lockwood predicts a continued increase in infections with the rush to return to normal and with the continued demonstrations against police brutality.
Fortunately, he said, the victims will be mostly younger people at much lower risk of hospitalization and death. Still, even if they show no symptoms, as in the case of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, they may infect others, he said.
"They should all be tested ASAP.”
Staff writers Josh Solomon and Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.