NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County commissioners got a full update this week from local medical experts on the merits of mask mandates, other public health initiatives and how the coronavirus is impacting the community.
They heard that the cases of COVID-19 are rising.
“We’re now in the environment where we’re considered to have a high case rate and no end in sight,” said Mike Napier of the Pasco Health Department.
The county has seen more than 16,500 cases with nearly a 10 percent increase in the last week alone. Daily case numbers are now averaging over 200, twice the daily rate over a month ago, Napier said.
In addition, the Pasco positivity rate for COVID-19, which compares the number of tests done to the number of positive cases, has risen from just under 5 percent to just under 10 percent during the same time frame. Health experts want that number below 5 percent to contain the spread of the disease. “Pasco County has the highest positivity rate in the region,” he said.
The county is also reaching its capacity for testing and Napier warned that if things don’t change, the county could double its total number of cases within three months. “That’s startling,’' Napier said.
Physician Marissa Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida, also spoke about what local health experts have determined would need to happen with the virus infection numbers before they would recommend that mask mandates and other rules be relaxed in Pasco County and the rest of the region.
Based on Pasco’s population, she said that mask mandates and other public safety recommendations should stay in place until Pasco has fewer than 14 new cases a day and a positivity rate of less than 3 percent for four weeks.
Experts warn that rising cases can overrun local hospitals. She said that Tampa General Hospital reported no available intensive care beds on Tuesday. That prompted Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick to ask about the regional availability of beds. Napier said that the latest he heard two weeks ago was that no hospitals were diverting patients elsewhere at this point.
Since the start of the pandemic, 309 Pasco residents have died from the coronavirus and 19,627 deaths have been recorded in the state.
Before commissioners heard from medical experts, there were more than 30 minutes of arguments from two community members who oppose the mask mandate and nine videos done by others who dispute the need for and effectiveness of masks and what they consider exaggeration of the risks of the virus.
Commissioner Jack Mariano, who tested positive for the virus this weekend, attended Tuesday’s commission meeting virtually since he is in self quarantine. The primary opponent to the county’s mask mandate on the commission, Mariano asked Levine what her thoughts were on several of the statements made during citizen comments.
One man demonstrated how smoke from a vaping device dispersed into the air even through various types of masks. Another argued that the masks don’t meet workplace standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Levine explained that masks were not perfect but studies continue to show that they are effective at cutting down the amount of virus that people with COVID-19 can project into the air, thus cutting infection rates. OSHA rules, she said, related to workplace exposures to airborne contaminants and are a different standard. She thanked the commission for their willingness to work with other jurisdictions in the region to keep public health and safety rules in place.
A USF colleague did a study, Levine said, which estimated that mask mandates have prevented 1.5 million coronavirus cases in the Tampa Bay region since July.
Mariano, who said he has had only a minimal fever and symptoms from COVID-19, also asked whether the advice he had gotten from his own doctor, to take zinc and vitamins to combat the illness, should be more widely pushed for prevention purposes.
Levine said there are some findings showing Vitamin D might help, but she said people need to be more concerned than ever about having a healthy diet overall rather than relying on supplements.
There was no talk by the commission about adjusting their mask mandate or other recommendations about social distancing. Commissioner Mike Moore said it was good to have the experts there to reinforce why Pasco has made the decisions that it has.
“We should be listening to the physicians,” Moore said. “That is what we’re doing here and what we’re continuing to do as a board, listening to the medical experts.”