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Hillsborough calls for coronavirus tests for adult home staffers

Wear your masks at home for the holidays, urges state health official.

TAMPA — Until Monday, Hillsborough County commissioners hadn’t met to talk about the coronavirus pandemic in 27 days. That was more than 7,200 cases ago.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough County stood at more than 53,000 Monday and, to try to stem the surge, commissioners asked nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes and facilities for people with disabilities to test their staffs for coronavirus on a routine basis.

The resolution, approved unanimously, is a recommendation, not a mandate, and comes because current federal rules apply only to testing nursing home staffs. The recommendation covers 462 facilities in the county.

“Without routine testing of staff, the very caregivers tasked with treating our vulnerable residents may unwittingly be the easiest vector for the viral transmissions,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

Previously, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration required bi-weekly tests of staff members at nursing homes and other medical and assisted living facilities. The state, however, relaxed that rule and now follows the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services order, which applies only to nursing homes.

"People wonder what good’s a recommendation if we’re not sending sheriffs in to enforce it,'' said Commissioner Mariella Smith.

But considering the contentious public debates over testing and mask-wearing, she said, “our recommendation gives those homes that want to comply some support and they are able to point to our authority and say this is legally recommended.”

The resolution came after a briefing from Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County. The county’s rate of positive diagnostic tests is 8.28 percent over the past two weeks, a significant jump from the 5.8 percent in late October. On average, approximately 300 people are being diagnosed with COVID-19 each day over the past two weeks.

Holt recommended people continue wearing masks, practice social distancing, not gather in large groups and wash their hands frequently. The precautions are more imperative with the holiday season approaching and Holt recommended limiting gatherings to immediate nuclear family members of no more than 10 people.

“It may not feel natural to wear a mask in that setting, but that is the advice and is strongly recommended,” Holt said.

Timothy Dudley, county director of emergency management, reported that the coronavirus test site at the University of South Florida is shutting down, at least temporarily, as students will be attending classes exclusively online after Thanksgiving. He said officials hope to reopen the site the week of Jan. 11 at the start of the next semester if the need persists.

Additionally, the county plans to make testing available for migrant and seasonal farmworkers at Manatee Village in Ruskin beginning Wednesday.

The commission, on a 6-0 vote with Commissioner Stacy White not voting, extended its emergency order and face mask requirement through Nov. 26.

Monday marked the final commission meeting for Chairman Les Miller Jr. and Commissioner Sandra Murman who must leave their seats because of term limits. Under the county’s hybrid meeting format, Miller, Murman and Commissioners Overman and Ken Hagan met at the County Center in Tampa while White, Smith and Commissioner Pat Kemp attended via teleconference.

Miller sounded a now-familiar refrain at the outset of the meeting: “Please, please keep your masks on."

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