Pinellas sees glimmer of hope in fight against COVID-19

Pinellas County commissioners listened to medical experts and staff, as well as members of the public July 30 before deciding to extend the local state of emergency and the order to wear face masks in indoor places until Aug. 7.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners unanimously approved another seven day extension of the local state of emergency on July 30. It will remain in effect until Aug. 7, along with the order to wear face masks in indoor places where social distancing isn’t possible.

Before the vote, Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas, provided a COVID-19 update, which included some good news. He said the county’s seven-day rolling average for new cases was down to 256 a day, compared to 380 three-four weeks ago. The seven-day rolling average for the percentage of positive tests was down to 7%, compared to 13% in past weeks. He also said capacity at local hospitals was improving.

“What we’re doing is working,” he said, adding a cautionary note that in the last few days a slight uptick had been observed.

However, deaths are still a concern with an increase in the numbers over the last five-six weeks.

He said workers at the local Department of Health had coined a new phrase, “COVID warriors,” to describe themselves.

“We all need to be COVID warriors and do our part with social distancing and masking up,” he said.

When asked if he thought the mask ordinance was helping, he said he thought it was combination of the order and bar closures.

Commissioners asked Sheriff Bob Gualtieri if there were problems at the local bars. He said there had been no issues, no calls or complaints.

“We’re not seeing a thing,” he said.

In his report, Dr. Angus Jameson, the medical director for the county’s emergency medical services, said local hospitals continued to have a “good number” of COVID-positive patients, but conditions were better than they had been. He is concerned about people putting off health care because they’re worried about going to the hospital.

“Hospitals are doing everything they need to do to keep you safe,” he said. “If you’re having a medical issue, call 911.”

He said people coming into the emergency room were sicker than normal because they were delaying coming in to get help.

“Don’t delay,” he said.

He also said there was a growing consensus that the coronavirus was not going to be like the seasonal flu, but instead there would be an ongoing level of infections with peaks and valleys occurring at local, regional and national levels.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters brought up a concern from local businesses unable to pay their property taxes on time and are now being hit with a fee for paying late. She asked if there was a way to waive those fees or set up a payment plan. She said many of the businesses she had talked to were on the verge of bankruptcy.

County Administrator Barry Burton said he would look into it, but didn’t think the county had the authority to do anything since property taxes weren’t necessarily a county tax.

Peters asked if the commission could send a letter to the state asking for help for the businesses. Vice Chair Dave Eggers, who was in charge of the meeting since Chair Pat Gerard was at a Canvassing Board meeting, said the county would have to find out who had authority to make decisions about property taxes.

Don Crowell, chief assistant county attorney, said property taxes were governed by statutory and constitutional processes. He wasn’t sure if the governor had the authority under emergency guidelines to do anything. He said he could craft a letter to send to the governor as well as the state house of representatives and senate.

Before taking the vote, commissioners listened to public comment both for and against the extension and the face mask order.

Dawn Bohler of St. Petersburg, who is a frequent commenter, said she is frustrated and angry because the gym she uses is making face masks mandatory. She gave several reasons why masks are bad and unhealthy, especially for people that have been victims of assault. She said she should have the right of choice in the matter.

Jane, who didn’t give her last name, also is opposed to face masks for a variety of reasons. She asked that bars and small businesses be allowed to open to help the economy. Yvette G. of St. Petersburg said instead of mandating face masks, people should be encouraged to build their immune systems. She said children did not transmit the virus so they should go back to school. She also doesn't believe that asymptomatic people transmit the virus. She advocates letting everyone decide for themselves.

Karen Mullins of Dunedin, another frequent commenter, thanked commissioners for listening to science and not pseudoscience. She said she had a friend die recently from COVID-19 and she is worried she may have it and is going to get tested. She pointed out that people with autoimmune diseases can’t boost their immune systems by taking vitamins and exercising. She supports the mask order.

Orlando Ocosta of St. Petersburg said public safety prevails over individual rights. He would like commissioners to make the mask order more permanent, so it becomes part of the social culture.

Amy Wright asked commissioners to extend the local state of emergency and continue the mask order. She talked about her 26-year-old husband who works in the health care field. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 in May. He had a mild case and did not have to be hospitalized.

However, she said, on July 29, he had checked into the emergency room. Doctors say he might have heart damage from his infection.

“Anyone asking for the mask mandate to be repealed doesn’t understand,” she said, adding that her husband was young and healthy, yet may have long-lasting effects from a mild case.

“He could have medical issues the rest of his life,” she said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.