NEW PORT RICHEY — While Mike Napier of the Department of Health in Pasco County cannot say for sure why the COVID-19 numbers are on the rise, he told the County Commission on Monday that it "wouldn’t be the time to take the foot off the gas'' and end Pasco’s mask mandate.
"I wish I had better news as far as what our cases have been for the last few weeks,'' Napier said. He pointed out that while the number of new cases has varied day to day and had been looking good earlier in the month, the trend lines are now heading up.
The county has shown a positivity rate, or the percentage of positive tests among tests processed, of almost 6 percent. Guidelines, including those set by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, call for positivity rates to remain at 5 percent or lower before rolling back restrictions. Pasco’s daily average of new cases had hovered around 29 but over the last two weeks have jumped to almost 50.
"We’re heading in the wrong direction,'' Napier said.
Napier’s figures also showed that the opening of school had an impact on cases, with 79 students and 26 school staff members testing positive and 1,400 students and 128 staff members sent home to quarantine after being exposed. Currently, 857 students and staff still quarantined.
But Napier said he couldn’t say whether the school numbers were the reason for Pasco’s increase in cases, overall but could be a factor as was gatherings over the Labor Day weekend.
Commissioner Ron Oakley said he continues to hear overwhelming support from those he speaks with to keep the mandate in place. "I’d hate to see us open up too early,'' he said.
Mariano asked for a comparison between Pasco County, with it’s mandate, and Hernando County, which has not enacted a mask order. County administrator Dan Biles said that the incidence of infection in Hernando is lower, but not as low as it should be given Hernando’s lower population density. The numbers also show that Hernando’s death rate is 60 percent higher than in Pasco.
The concern that Wells had for the mask mandate centered around businesses and incidents of arguments among people who do and don’t want to wear the masks. Commission Chairman Mike Moore said some businesses are actually being helped by the requirement. Hotel operators talking at the last Tourist Development Council meeting said that having the mask mandate in place was actually helping bring visitors into Pasco County.
Biles said that "customers want to go someplace where they are paying attention.'' He noted that county tourism officials said that 60-90 percent of travelers say it is important or very important that destinations have a safety protocol in place and that Pasco’s tourism numbers are almost back to where they were a year ago.
Mariano also questioned the effectiveness of different kinds of masks. Napier insisted that they were effective and were still being recommended by the country’s top health officials including the Centers for Disease Control.
Biles told commissioners he would bring them an update on the coronavirus at their Oct. 20 meeting.