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Face masks reduced Tampa Bay coronavirus cases by 1.4 million, says USF professor

“Face mask is the best option that we have,” says epidemiologist Dr. Edwin Michael.
In June, Michelle Ingram, 52, distributes face masks in Lutz. Hillsborough County has distributed more than 1.3 million masks since the cornavirus pandemic began.
In June, Michelle Ingram, 52, distributes face masks in Lutz. Hillsborough County has distributed more than 1.3 million masks since the cornavirus pandemic began. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2020
Updated Dec. 2, 2020

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay region may have averted up to 1.4 million additional cases of COVID-19 because of face mask mandates from local governments.

Dr. Edwin Michael, a University of South Florida College of Public Health professor and an epidemiologist who studies the spread of global infectious diseases, shared that projection Wednesday with Hillsborough County commissioners.

Hillsborough started its face mask rule June 22 and it led to a reduction in cases through mid-October because it helped curb community transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The recent resurgence is due to a steady decline in people observing the social measures and an increase in population movement after Sept. 1, Michael said, as the school year began and bars and restaurants reopened.

Modeling predicted the four-county region of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk will have 140,000 cases by Dec. 12. With no face mask mandate, the model forecast 1.5 million people would have been infected.

“This shows the power of social measures,’' Michael said.

“Something as simple as a mask works so well, as we can see from the data,” said Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp.

Michael’s briefing came a day after the state surpassed the 1 million mark in the number of COVID-19 cases since March. In the seven-county region stretching from Citrus to Manatee counties, there were 161,706 total cases, including 58,749 in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough County requires people to wear face masks inside businesses when social distancing is not possible, but a September order from Gov. Ron DeSantis voided local governments’ ability to assess fines to violators.

The peak of the coming wave of new cases is likely to occur around the first week of February, but the strength and duration of the surge “depends on the strength of the current social measures being practiced by the community,” Michael said.

The best containment option is to ramp up social measures to reduce community transmission, said Michael. He warned warning that even a moderate decline in social interventions will increase daily cases and could overwhelm hospitals.

Commissioner Kimberly Overman asked if there are other measures the county should consider.

“Face mask is the best option that we have,” said Michael.

People should continue to avoid crowds, keep at least six feet away from others and wash their hands frequently, he said.

“It really is up to the individuals in the community to take responsible for themselves and not just wearing a mask, but wear it correctly,’' said Commissioner Harry Cohen.

For the upcoming holidays, Michael said ,people should only gather with nuclear family members. Students returning home from colleges should be tested when they arrive and also quarantine.

The county also will be kicking off a media campaign to encourage people “to spread love, not germs” during the holiday season.

Vaccines, Michael said, will arrive too late to prevent the next wave, but he predicted the pandemic could be defused by April if people continue to practice face-mask and social-distance rules as the vaccinations become available.

The county’s face mask rule is contained within its emergency declaration which has been extended on a weekly basis since its inception in March. Commissioners voted 6-1 Wednesday to continue the order. Commissioner Stacy White dissented.

Timothy Dudley, the county’s emergency management director, said the county is opening two new test sites to help meet an uptick in demand for coronavirus testing. The county and private providers administered an average of nearly 33,000 tests each of the past two weeks. The county covers about 22 percent of that demand.

Dudley said the county will use its mobile teams to offer up to 500 tests per day at the Big Bend Sports Complex in Riverview and the William Owen Pass Sports Complex in Dover. The sites will operate three days a week.

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