Last Thursday, reports from the Florida Department of Health listed a collective 194 new cases of COVID-19 in the eight counties of Tampa Bay. It was the region’s highest single-day increase in infections since April 2, during the earliest days of the pandemic, yet this concerning milestone attracted minimal attention.
Because public health information is generally reported, analyzed and acted on at the county-level – in the pandemic weeds, so to speak.
It’s imperative that we change that dynamic. Like our residents and business, the virus gives little thought to crossing political and geographic boundaries. As Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri noted earlier this month when the county opened its beaches, the majority of visitors came from neighboring communities. It’s this kind of mobility within our region that requires us to maintain a bigger picture of what the virus is doing and where it might be moving.
To assist in that effort, the Tampa Bay Partnership recently launched an online tool, the COVID-19 Regional Re-Opening Dashboard, for Tampa Bay residents and policymakers to track the official public health metrics that Gov. Ron DeSantis has said will be used to guide the re-opening of our economy.
The regional dashboard aggregates data for eight counties (Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota) and monitors the specific benchmarks related to COVID-19 symptoms, testing and new cases that are outlined as the centerpiece of the state’s re-opening plan. The dashboard also monitors the capacity of hospitals within the region to plan for and accommodate a potential surge.
Because trend lines are updated as soon as new data is available, we can quickly see whether the threat of the virus is decreasing or rebounding, and our government leaders can make informed decisions to continue re-opening or to pull back and impose new restrictions on movement.
As we move forward in the reopening of our economy, we urge our elected officials in the region to collaboratively review this data, monitor the progress of our recovery, and coordinate investigations, strategies and responses if negative trends begin to emerge.
No formal structure is required, but there should be ongoing communication between the leaders of the respective counties within Tampa Bay. Commissioner Mike Moore, chairman of the Pasco County Commission, convened such a group in March. It would send a strong, positive message to our community if these leaders came together again.
Regional coordination is a critical component of a successful response to this crisis. With so much uncertainty ahead, this is the time to establish a framework for a true regional partnership.
Our region’s major hospitals have already provided an outstanding example of regional collaboration, and for all the right reasons. During this crisis, AdventHealth, BayCare Heath System, HCA West Florida and Tampa General Hospital joined forces to share real-time data on COVID-19, to prepare for a possible surge that might overwhelm one hospital, but could be handled by the four systems together. One hospital CEO described the effort as managing their four hospital systems as if it were one system, both regional and virtual.
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This is exactly the model our county leaders should follow to ensure the health and safety of all Tampa Bay residents. Given what we are facing with this deadly virus, it may very well be a matter of life and death.
Rick Homans is president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.