Signs of improvement in COVID-19 fight: State of emergency extended in Pinellas

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton updates county commissioners during an Aug. 11 meeting on the progress being made in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton shared “a bit of good news” before county commissioners unanimously approved extending the local state of emergency at their Aug. 11 meeting.

The state of emergency and mandatory face mask order will continue until Aug. 21.

Burton said the county has seen some success locally in the fight against the novel coronavirus. The county’s average seven-day rolling average for the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests has dropped to 4.9%. Last week, it was 6%.

“The combination of the masks, the combination of education, the social distancing, limiting the bars and large gatherings has had an impact we believe,” Burton said.

He also said the health care system has been stable.

Still, he cautioned that the fight is not over.

“We’re going to be at this for a while,” he said.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the state Department of Health in Pinellas County, agreed that things were looking up. He said the 4.9% seven-day positivity rate was the lowest the county has had in a long time.

“I just want us to keep up the good work with social distancing and masks,” he said.

Hospitals are doing better with capacity thanks to two dedicated COVID-19 facilities in the county that are caring for patients from long-term care facilities that used to be held in the hospitals, meaning fewer COVID patients are in the hospital, Choe said.

“We’re really heading in the right direction,” he said.

Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for the county’s Emergency Medical Services, agreed, saying the county was in a “bit better situation today compared to the last few weeks.”

“Hospitals are doing pretty well keeping up with demand in regular and COVID patients,” he said.

He again urged residents with a medical issue to get the care they need. He said too many were delaying care and experiencing worse outcomes.

He is encouraged with the progress being made in Pinellas.

“But now is not the time to take our foot off the gas,” he said. “We’re still seeing significantly higher numbers than we’d like them to be, and we need to take this opportunity to drive the disease down as much as possible in our community particularly as we look toward future events.”

He mentioned the opening of schools as a future event that could cause case numbers to grow again.

Choe said it was important to continue to protect the vulnerable population. He said Pinellas is disproportionately affected in terms of deaths and hospitalizations due to its population of elderly and chronically ill.

He said the county’s death rate had climbed to 2.9%, which is one of the highest in the state. He said any increase in case numbers can have the accompanying poor outcomes here in Pinellas — “something we have to be mindful of in protecting our vulnerable population.”

As of Aug. 11, 513 COVID-19 related deaths had been reported in Pinellas. Most, 193, or 38%, were age 85 and older, 163, or 32%, were ages 75-84, and 96, of 19%, were ages 65-75.

At least 355 of the county’s deaths were residents or staff at one of the county’s long-term care facilities. Pinellas is No. 3 in the state reporting 10% of deaths at these facilities. Dade County is No. 1 with 635 deaths, or 18%, and Palm Beach County is No. 2 with 381 deaths, or 10%.

Choe said significant improvements had been made in the county’s long-term care facilities in the last few months thanks to a collaborative effort involving the fire departments, the state and the county to make sure they have the supplies they need and know how to effectively manage the care for COVID-19 patients. He said the state’s implementing of testing every two weeks for employees had helped.

Jameson agreed that it was important to care for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, adding that it was “up to the rest of the community to do what we can to protect them, knowing we have such a high percentage in our county.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice believes one of the reasons the county is having success in the fight against COVID-19 is the senior population because they are taking it seriously. But, they are also at high risk, he said.

Justice said while the numbers are looking better, it is still important for people who work with or live with people in higher risk categories to take care.

“You have a special responsibility to take this even more seriously and take all these needed precautions,” he said.

Commissioner Ken Welch said the trends and data are showing the community’s response to the masks and social distancing.

“I get that we still have long way to go,” he said. “I think it shows if you listen to the data and the science and the community has buy in, it works. So I just want to thank everyone.”

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