Hillsborough nears ‘crossroads’ in pandemic, say health officials

Cases are on the rise in the county, especially among younger residents.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met April 27. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published June 11, 2020|Updated June 11, 2020

TAMPA — As Florida recorded its single-day record for new coronavirus cases Thursday, a state health official told Hillsborough leaders that the county “was nearing the crossroads” of containing the pandemic locally.

Dr. Douglas Holt, the state Department of Health’s director for Hillsborough County, said new cases are trending upward in recent weeks.

The cases are going up. But we have not reached the state where we need to step back as long as we do what we need to do to reduce the spread,” Holt told members of the county’s Emergency Policy Group.

Holt and other public health officials said the county was at a critical period of infections, especially among its younger residents between 18 and 35-years-old.

“We are nearing the crossroads,” Holt said.

But more specifics about when the county might need to take action was hard to pin down. Holt said there isn’t any one metric that would mandate the group take measures to slow the spread.

“There is no science that says: ‘This is the absolute number,'” Holt said, saying he agrees with state leadership’s position. “It’s in the eye of the beholder if you will.”

Earlier, County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said she was frustrated by the lack of specificity from Holt, who is a state official. She said she wants a data point that the group can use to know when it’s time to act.

“We’ve not gotten an answer and we’ve asked every single week,” Overman said.

Holt wasn’t the only public health official to raise an alarm about a worrying trend line of new cases.

"I really think the community is at a critical turning point,’’ said Marissa Levine, director for the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida, "and I think we have a chance to prevent a second wave.''

She and others again advocated for the public to practice social distancing, wear face coverings in close quarters, avoid large crowds and follow cleanliness and hand-washing guidelines.

“It is clear that if we can get more people to do that regularly… then in all likelihood we can prevent a second wave,’’ Levine said. “... If we wait too long, it could be too late.’’

County Commission Chairman Les Miller, who also heads the policy group, made an emotional plea for a strong message for residents to wear masks.

“The bottom line is we should be talking about what we can do to save lives,” he said. “We’re the ones that should be pushing a very, very strong message: please, please wear your masks!”

County Administrator Mike Merrill said that the county is producing a wide variety of public service announcements to appeal to different demographics. Some people respond to politicians asking them to wear masks. Others listen to professional football players, opera singers or politicians.

“You have to meet people where they are,” he said, saying it was important to tailor the messaging to specific target markets.

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The messaging is needed, said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. She said her feeling is that the community thinks the crisis has passed.

The numbers tell a different story.

Holt said there have been 704 new cases in the past week and hospitalizations have increased slightly from 134 to 142.

Intensive care units and ventilator use remain very low, which is good news, Holt said.

The percentage of new cases of people under 34-years-old has nearly doubled since mid-May to 46 percent of those tested most recently, he said.

Overall, the percentage of positive tests remains below 5 percent, but is also trending upward in the past few weeks, health officials said.

“We’d like to see it going down,” Holt said. “We are seeing some more community-based spread.”

Castor said the data shows a clear need for more testing.

“This brings back up to the surface to do another round of marketing our encouragement for people to go out and get tested. From the data I see, there are fewer individuals signing up at the sites,” Castor said.

Fourteen-day trends show more young people are testing positive for coronavirus, said Kevin Wagner of the Hillsborough County Department of Health Care Services.

Between May 13 and June 10, the percentage of children 14 and younger testing positive quadrupled from 2 to 8 percent. Among people age 15 to 24, the positive rate grew from 4.5 percent to 15 percent and among people age 24 to 35 the positive results grew from 15 percent to 23 percent.

Most of the new cases of children under 18 come from infections spread in the home, Holt said.

At the outset of the meeting, Galen Rydzik of Tampa asked the group to reconsider its decision of a week ago when it declined to issue a recommendation allowing people to wear facial coverings in private settings, including their place of employment. It was a topic that resurfaced among policy group members, too.

Commissioner Sandy Murman, who last week voted against that facial-covering recommendation, asked what steps the group could take.

“Without mandating, what do we do? It’s not a political thing, it’s about health and safety and protecting our residents,’’ said Murman.

Merrill said public communications is the key.

‘’At a certain point, we will need to move a majority of the population to a point where they believe in their heart it is everyone’s responsibility to not only protect themselves, but to protect others,’’ he said.

In the end, the eight-member group voted to start meeting twice a week again to keep informed about the uptick. Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively were the only two opposed.

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