Pinellas County and state of Florida extends state of emergency

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, updates County commissioners on the latest COVID-19 trends during an April 27 meeting.

LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously April 27 to extend the local state of emergency through May 7. That same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the state’s emergency order for another 60 days.

By state law, local emergency orders must be extended every seven days to stay in effect and the state must renew its order every 60 days. There had been some concern that DeSantis would not extend the state order. But, he did so with only hours before it expired.

County Attorney Jewel White explained the county’s state of emergency was not dependent on one being in effect at the state level. She said the commission had the power to declare an emergency to protect the health and safety of its citizens. She added that the state of emergency also was important to allow for reimbursements for costs from the state and federal governments.

In his executive order, DeSantis said Florida was realizing a “manageable trend” in COVID-19 cases and had more than 8.5 million vaccinated individuals. He also said the state should prepare to resume non-emergency operations.

Before the county’s vote, commissioners heard an update from the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County’s Director, Dr. Ulyee Choe, who said COVID-19 trends were improving. The seven-day average case count was down to 180 compared to 259 at his last report. The percent positivity of tests was down to 4.9% compared to 6.8%. He said the county had reported about 27 deaths since the commission’s last meeting on April 13.

Hospital capacity is stable, he said. Still 182 hospital beds were occupied by a COVID-19 patient that Tuesday morning with 46 in ICU.

Choe said the effort to get as many people vaccinated as possible was continuing with about 42% of the county receiving at least one dose. In addition, 67% of those ages 65 and up had been vaccinated. He said one manufacturer was looking at getting approval for vaccinations for ages 12 and up. Currently, vaccines are only approved for those ages 16 and up.

However, Choe noted that there had been a “huge drop” in demand for vaccinations with hundreds of appointment slots going unfilled at the sites run by in partnership between Pinellas County and the health department. If the trend continues, the plan will be to consolidate the sites and look to the private sectors, such as local pharmacies, to meet the demand.

Choe pointed out that the more people who get vaccinated the better to be able to achieve herd immunity and get past the pandemic. He suggested that those who are fearful about getting the vaccination talk to those who have already received one about their experience.

For information on how to get a vaccination, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/vaccines.

Experts say a good vaccine rate to achieve herd immunity is 70% to 80%, Choe said. He did not have an estimate as to when Pinellas might reach that percentage. Choe admitted it might be difficult to reach an 80% vaccination rate in Pinellas.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters asked again why those that had already been infected by COVID-19 could not be included toward the count to herd immunity. Choe said the level of infection varied and those with mild infections likely would not have enough antibodies. He said the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommended that those who had been infected get vaccinated.

Before the vote to extend the local state of emergency, the commission heard from 65 residents who spoke out against the ordinance that requires facial coverings in indoor places and other restrictions enacted to slow down the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public.

Normally, the public is asked to speak only on the agenda item, in this case the state of emergency, but Commission Chair Dave Eggers did not prevent the public from speaking about the ordinance, although he did cut their time from three minutes to two minutes to allow time to make it through the scheduled agenda items before the public hearings advertised to begin at 6 p.m.

He promised they would have another opportunity to speak on the matter during the May 11 public hearing on the ordinance. Pinellas County has since canceled that public hearing as the ordinance has been rescinded.

Many of the arguments from the public were the same as those that have been given since the commission unanimously adopted the ordinance on June 23, 2020. It became effective the next day.

Many claim it is a violation of their Constitutional rights and personal freedoms to make their own decisions about their health. Some say the commission is treating them like children making them wear “face diapers.”

Others say the masks do more harm than good. And some question whether they do any good at all.

Some of the speakers are parents who believe if the county would rescind its ordinance the school board would no longer require their children to wear masks to attend classes. The county’s ordinance does not require persons under age 18 to wear masks.

Examples were given of those who can’t wear masks due to physical or emotional issues. The county’s ordinance provides exceptions for those who say they can’t wear masks, however, the speakers say the exceptions are not being honored by local businesses or the public and provided examples of harassment.

The speakers said the masks are divisive. They say many refuse to wear them. One woman said not only should the county rescind the ordinance that requires masks, commissioners should enact one that bans masks.

A few complained about what they called “experimental vaccinations” and said the county kept moving the rate to get to herd immunity. Some declared they had no intention of getting a vaccine.

The two or three that actually did speak to the state of emergency said it should not be extended because no emergency existed. Another said that keeping it in effect to get reimbursements for costs was just a “money grab” on behalf of the county. A couple brought up the old argument that COVID was no worse than the flu.

Some declared they would continue to speak at the meetings until the ordinance was rescinded.

“We will not be silenced,” was said by more than one.

The commission was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the ordinance on May 11. The in-person and virtual meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. The ordinance is first public hearing on the agenda followed by the local state of emergency.

However, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order May 3 that suspends local restrictions due to COVID-19. The county announced May 4 that the public hearing has been canceled and the ordinance was rescinded.

For more information, visit pinellascounty.org.

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

Revised to include the executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis suspending local government's power to impose local emergency restrictions due to COVID-19.

Revised to announce that the May 11 public hearings have been canceled and the ordinance was rescinded.