Uptick in COVID-19 cases in Pinellas causing concern: Public reminded to stay safe

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers would like the public to increase efforts to stop the community spread of COVID-19, especially in places such as grocery stores and drug stores where all ages go for essential needs.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners held a special meeting June 11 to talk about public messaging focused on the novel coronavirus pandemic. Commissioners are concerned due to a steady increase in COVID-19 cases and positive tests over the past few days.

Florida Department of Health reported Pinellas’ biggest one-day increase — 116 new cases — on June 11. The county is up to 1,862 cases and 101 deaths. So far this week, 278 cases have been reported and six deaths.

County Administrator Barry Burton said the concern is not simply the increases in numbers, which were expected as the economy reopened and more testing was done, but the trend toward more community spread.

From May 3-June 3, the county averaged 27 new cases a day. But from June 4-8, the average climbed to 54 cases a day.

Burton said it was not yet known if the higher numbers represented a new trend.

He said the number of weekly tests were up to more than 2,000. In past weeks, the percent positive had remained the same, about 1%, but positive tests are now about 2-2.5% with a one-day spike of 4.5%. DOH reported an average of 3.1% positive on June 11.

“Clearly the trends are not good,” Burton said.

He said numbers at long-term care facilities were beginning to stabilize, but COVID-19 was now becoming more prevalent in the community.

The question is what to do about it and how best to remind people to stay safe to protect themselves and others.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas, said not only are the numbers growing, but more cases are showing up in people under age 40, including those in their late 20s. And more people of color are testing positive, 24% are black and 11% are Hispanic. A slight increase is reported in women who make up 57% of cases.

He said the new numbers underscore the fact that the virus is still around. He said although safer at home orders had slowed it down, prevention was still needed.

Choe said social distancing is still very important. He recommends that people wear cloth masks, wash hands frequently and continue to sanitize surfaces to prevent the spread to people who are vulnerable.

The vulnerable population includes people ages 65 and older; people who live in a long-term care facility or nursing home; people with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma; people with serious heart conditions, are immunocompromised, are severely obese, have diabetes, have chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis; and people with liver disease.

Choe said the possibility of spreading the virus to the vulnerable population was one of the things that keep him up at night.

“One thing that worries me is our young adults and youth taking it back home to their grandparents or parents and they succumb,” he said.

He said employers should recommend that employees wear masks because just one employee with COVID-19 can have a big effect on a business.

Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director at Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, said responding to the coronavirus was complicated because it was a novel virus and much is still unknown. He believes face masks add a benefit in preventing community spread because it is an airborne virus. He reminded the public that there is no vaccine and no cure.

The primary tool to stop the spread is by staying apart, he said. The best way to not get sick is to not breathe the air of the person next to you, he said.

Currently, hospital capacity is adequate; however, it will be a couple of weeks before it is known if the spike in new cases will affect local hospitals. Jameson said people usually start getting sick five to 10 days after exposure. The illness is mild for the first few days before becoming severe.

He did say that health care workers were getting better at treating the illness, reducing the time of hospitalizations and the number of deaths.

Jameson said since the pandemic began and people stopped seeking care for other ailments, hospitals had decreased their staff. Recently, the volume of patients had been intermittent, so hospitals are struggling to match staffing with demand. He said he had heard some concern about capacity as there is not as much as some would like.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said a strong message needs to be sent that the pandemic is still here. There are more unknowns than knowns. He is worried because people stopped practicing preventive measures so quickly.

“If you’re not worried about yourself, worry about other people,” he said.

He would like an emphasis be placed on adopting a different attitude about wearing masks in places such as grocery stories and drug stores, where people of all ages need to go for essential services. He suggested that stores put up signs encouraging everyone to put on a mask.

Jameson pointed out that it was important that masks cover the mouth and nose and fit well to the face.

“Otherwise it is not doing any good,” he said.

Commissioner Karen Seel talked about the way some stores were conducting business by requiring appointments and requiring that everyone wear masks. She said some still displayed the yellow sign the sheriff’s office distributed back in the beginning that outlines Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

She said she had seen a spray-painted message that said Be safe. Be kind. Be well. She suggested that it be put in places such as football fields. She also suggested that the county’s ambassadors and celebrities spread the message.

One problem with face masks is that you can’t see people smiling, she said, suggesting that people “smile with their eyes” or use a thumbs-up to thank someone for wearing a mask.

The message needs to be about the new normal, Commission Chair Pat Gerard said. She suggested a mask with the message, “I care about you, so I’m wearing a mask.”

Welch pointed out that best messengers were young people. Commissioners acknowledged that the message needs to go beyond the county’s social media channels.

Jameson suggested a simple message, playing off safer at home and that was safer at work and safer at play. Welch added safer at school as plans continue to reopen them.

COVID-19 in the jail

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told commissioners that he had a “big problem at the jail.”

He said in the last 48 hours, 20 people, including inmates and staff had tested positive for COVID-19.

He is making “very significant changes” at the jail, including not booking inmates except for serious crimes.

He said many more had been tested with results still pending. The jail has adequate capacity to isolate inmates for now. But staffing is a challenge.

For example, three inmate records specialists tested positive, so he had to send the entire day shift home for 14 days. Staff had to be realigned to make up for those 30 people. C barracks is closed down and quarantined he said.

The sheriff’s office announced June 9 that not only had the inmate records specialists tested positive, but a jail social worker and two detention deputies had COVID-19, as well as a patrol deputy out of the North District Station in Dunedin.

The sheriff is worried about bringing any new people into the jail, so he has asked local police chiefs to only book those with serious charges.

His goal is to “flatten the curve and slow this thing down,” as testing continues.

“It’s concerning,” he said.

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