NEW PORT RICHEY — As Pasco County’s number of new coronavirus cases inches up, Mike Napier of the Department of Health again urged county commissioners to keep in place their mandatory mask order and, after some debate, commissioners agreed.
Pasco put the order in place June 23 but ever since then, Napier has made regular appearances showing in charts and graphs the progress of local efforts to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 through the community. Pasco’s order requires face coverings in most indoor locations where social distancing cannot be done.
Tuesday’s visit was summed up simply. “I wish I had better news,” Napier said, announcing that the seven-day average of new cases had grown since his report to commissioners last month. At that time, the new case number was 49 a day and now, it has risen to 53. Also growing, Napier said, was the percentage of positive cases.
Health experts urge communities to keep that percentage below 5 percent and Pasco’s numbers are creeping close to that number in recent days. “We’re trending in the wrong direction,” Napier said.
He did praise the school district for taking the health precautions seriously saying numbers indicated that schools are not spreading the illness but that it is more likely that an adult in a home catches COVID-19 and spreads it within the family.
That doesn’t mean the contact of those with coronavirus hasn’t caused disruption in schools. Napier’s numbers showed that 3,346 people exposed to the virus through the schools have had to isolate themselves, impacting classroom instruction and athletic involvement. “We understand that it’s disruptive, but we’re also trying to prevent the spread," he said.
Commissioner Jack Mariano again asked commissioners to consider dialing back the mask mandate to a strong suggestion to wear masks, played a video showing comments from various health experts and others raising doubts about whether masks are effective at stopping the coronavirus. He said he continues to hear from area residents who want the mandate to end.
Mariano made a motion to change the mandate into a recommendation.
"Let people protect themselves if they want to,'' he said. For those who don’t want to wear the mask, he said, "give the freedom to go back to their lives the way they want to.''
Mariano did not receive a second for his motion. Commissioner Mike Wells said he agreed with the idea but he was going to listen to Napier’s recommendation.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she recently returned from a trip and she saw much stricter mask requirements in several states along the way. Local businesses have also been clear that they want to keep their staff safe from the virus and they would continue to require masks anyway. "I say stay the course,'' Starkey said.
Napier said no one believes the masks are going to 100 percent effective to keep people from getting COVID-19 but they are a part of the strategy which along with social distancing and frequent hand washing will slow the spread of the virus.