Hillsborough continues steady increase in coronavirus cases.

Public health officials call for greater community participation in preventing pandemic spread.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met Monday for the first time in weeks after the county experienced a recent increase in coronavirus cases.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group met Monday for the first time in weeks after the county experienced a recent increase in coronavirus cases. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published June 15, 2020|Updated June 15, 2020

TAMPA — The county’s top public health official said Monday that a steady increase in coronavirus cases was no cause for “retreat," but appealed for greater participation from residents to help stem the pandemic’s spread.

“We certainly don’t need to retreat but we need to get some cooperation. I just can’t accept that our community won’t pull together and reduce this transmission,” said Dr. Douglas Holt, the county director for the state Department of Health at the county’s Emergency Policy Group meeting.

There is continuing evidence of community spread of the virus, but contract tracing has not shown any clear trends that can be tied to the reopening of the county. No patrons have been proven to have been infected in entertainment or retail establishments, he said.

“We don’t see any smoking gun," Holt said, adding that most infected residents report being exposed to the virus at home or from extended family or friends or in the workplace.

Temple Terrace acting Mayor Andy Ross asked if Holt could tie any infections to the protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

“There’s a lot of curiosity about that,” Ross said.

“At this time we have not,” Holt said, adding that health officials haven’t specifically asked about attendance at protests, but have asked about public gatherings.

Data from the county’s Health Services Department mirrored information provided to the group last week showing a greater percentage of younger people testing positive for the coronavirus. Through Sunday morning, the 14-day trends showed more than 26 percent of the county’s cases are among people 18 to 34. Meanwhile the trend line among senior citizens is dropping from 33 percent of all county cases in early May to 12 percent as of Sunday.

The number of new cases is also trending upward with a rolling 14-day average of more than 100 new cases each day in Hillsborough County. On Saturday, the spike showed more than 200 new cases and an additional 109 on Sunday, about four times as many cases as on May 4 when the state began its phase one reopening.Through Sunday, the two-week rolling average for positive test results was 5.65 percent.

Through Friday, the number of people hospitalized stood at 138 in regular hospital beds and 34 being treated in intensive care units. COVID-19 accounts for 4 percent of the admissions to the health-care system, said Kevin Wagner of the Health Services Department.

Plant City Mayor Rick Lott said the increase in cases is not a surprise given the reopening of the economy. He said he had anticipated worse numbers.

“To me, I’m a little bit relieved,’’ Lott said.

“I do think people have gotten complacent because there is no sense of urgency,’’ said Commissioner Sandy Murman.

County Administrator Mike Merrill announced the county is expanding its so-called “step-down” facility at the Inn at University Village. The county contracted for a 60-bed facility in mid-May for patients who no longer require hospitalization, but cannot return to their homes or to adult-care facilities. Merrill said Monday the center now will have an additional 60 beds available for patient recovering from COVID-19. Fire Chief Dennis Jones said 45 of the initial 60 beds were filled as of Monday.

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“It creates another safety valve for hospitals,’’ Merrill said.

At the outset of the meeting, four residents called in to address the group, but split on whether more restrictions are needed.

“My greatest fear is that our health-care system is going to become quickly overwhelmed in increase in new cases,’’ said Kimberly Pullen, a nurse, who asked the group to issue a face-mask recommendation.

She said about half to three-quarters of the patrons she sees in stores or other locations are not wearing face masks.

Alysha Legge asked the county to reopen playgrounds in county parks and objected to the rules being suggested.

“I’m frankly tired of being told what I can and can’t do with my children by elected government officials.’’ she said.

Ross wondered why — after more than 3,600 cases in the country — there was still no clear pattern of how the virus is expanding its reach.

“It’s frustrating that with so many cases that no pattern seems to be emerging at all. And that’s kind of hard to believe," Ross said.

Holt acknowledged that the county’s contract-tracing efforts were “stressed,” but said the virus is “insidious."

“All of these things have come together outside of cruise ships, outside of the long-term care, outside of church or religious events, those haven’t been able to account for, by any stretch of the imagination, of the majority of the sources of our cases,” Holt said.

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