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Tampa Bay has ‘high’ COVID levels, masks recommended indoors

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco residents have reached “high” levels of COVID-19, according to federal safety guidelines.
Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, “high” community level is the threshold when federal health officials recommend that all residents wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces.
Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, “high” community level is the threshold when federal health officials recommend that all residents wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2021) ]
Published May 23|Updated May 23

It’s time to start wearing a mask indoors, Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are among eight Florida counties that have “high” community levels of COVID-19, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of federal pandemic data.

The other high-risk counties are Sarasota, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, “high” community level is the threshold when federal health officials recommend that all residents wear a well-fitting mask in public indoor spaces in those counties.

However, the CDC itself does not list the Tampa Bay area as having “high” community levels. Instead, the bay area’s three counties are listed as “medium” risk on the CDC’s own website.

University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi verified the Times’ calculations and agreed the counties’ COVID-19 data shows they should be classified as “high” risk under the CDC’s own standards.

Related: Florida COVID cases jump 53%. Tampa Bay transmission levels rise.

The Times on Monday asked the CDC to comment on why it has not yet raised the risk level in Tampa Bay. The agency said it is working on a response. Six other Florida counties, including Hernando, are at a “medium” level of transmission, according to the Times analysis.

In “medium” counties, people at high risk of severe illness should consider wearing a mask in public indoor settings, according to federal guidelines. High-risk individuals include those with preexisting conditions, the elderly, and those who have yet to be fully vaccinated.

In areas of “high” and “medium” levels, the CDC recommends that everyone make sure their vaccinations are up to date and get tested if they show symptoms.

Florida has seen nine straight weeks of rising COVID-19 infections, and last week the seven-day average jumped 53 percent, according to CDC data. The state is averaging 8,601 cases a day, the highest number since Feb. 14. Hospitalizations increased by over 20% during the same seven-day period, May 14-20, but the numbers have not reached previous surges.

Related: A third of U.S. should consider wearing masks, officials say

Salemi noted that the virus is again spreading through the state with almost no measures such as widespread masking or social distancing in place to slow it down.

“It’s just sad because, again, it was just this expectation that the numbers are going to continue to rise until we do something meaningful to block spread,” he said, “or until just a lot of vulnerable people end up in the hospital, which, obviously, nobody wants.”

Under federal guidelines, a county is classified as having “high” community levels of COVID-19 when it records 200 or more cases and 10 or more hospital admissions per 100,000 residents in a 7-day window.

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Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco Counties each had more than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents from May 13-19, according to both state and federal data. That same week, Tampa Bay area hospitals recorded 11.6 hospitalizations.

The three counties should have been listed as having “high” risk levels as of Friday. But as of 6 p.m. Monday, the CDC’s COVID-19 website still rated the three Tampa Bay counties’ at “medium” status.

Related: The U.S. Postal Service is offering more free COVID tests by mail

Last week, the CDC released a May 19 footnote on its website that COVID-19 levels were mislabeled for some Florida counties due to a data error. Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties should have appeared as “high” areas and Osceola should have appeared as “medium,” the footnote said.

But that footnote excluded the three Tampa Bay counties, along with Sarasota and Monroe.

The Miami Herald last week reported on how the error affected South Florida. The data error has since been fixed, but Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties remain classified as areas of “medium” risk despite meeting the “high” criteria — just like Tampa Bay.

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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