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As Covid numbers rise, local leaders continue to seek solutions

Jaymi Butler

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Race to Safe
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin speaks at the launch of the city's Race to Safe campaign in December 2020.

It’s been nearly a month since Mayor Rick Kriseman stood on the steps of City Hall and announced the city’s Race to Safe campaign, an educational initiative aimed at lowering Covid numbers while encouraging residents to do their part to stop the spread of the virus. 

“It’s going to take everyone in the community to be involved in helping us win this race,” he said on a rainy December morning with masked members of city council by his side. “Instead of just asking people to do the right thing, we want to challenge them to take part in this race and let their competitive spirit come out.”

That day, Pinellas County’s two-week rolling average stood at 5.85 percent and was the lowest of the state’s 10 most populated counties. Fast forward to early January and that number has jumped to nearly 9.6 percent, with overnight positivity rates regularly spiking to double digits. Consequently, Pinellas County has dropped to fifth in the race behind Brevard, Palm Beach, Broward and Lee Counties. 

Kevin King, the mayor’s chief of policy and public engagement, told the Catalyst Tuesday that the campaign will continue as the city works with its partners to get residents vaccinated. While the spike in numbers was anticipated due to holiday travel and gatherings, that doesn’t make it easier to swallow.

“The mayor is disappointed in behaviors that may lead to a rise in Covid in St. Pete, but he recognizes this is a complicated public health crisis and a truly unique challenge for our government, our residents and business owners,” King said. 

Bringing the percent positivity rate below five percent was one of the initial goals of the campaign. Five percent is the number that some public health officials say should be a threshold for imposing restrictions, though state and federal reopening guidelines cite that number at 10 percent. Kriseman, who has been critical about how the pandemic has been handled on both the federal and state level, continues to explore all options to bring the numbers down.

 “Mayor Kriseman spends time on this every day, talking to his team, experts, county officials and others,” King said. “He really believes a national or statewide strategy would best protect us from Covid. Barring that, he prefers a regional approach.”

Just before the holidays, Kriseman met virtually with officials from Hillsborough and Pinellas County to talk about the importance of having a uniform set of policies in place to prevent confusion over what the rules are. 

“We’re only able to be effective if we do things regionally,” Kriseman said at the meeting. “This virus does not stop at county borders or city borders, nor do our residents.”

At that time, vaccines had just begun to roll out at hospitals for frontline healthcare workers and to residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Since then, the state’s response has been slow, with logistical challenges plaguing hospital systems and health departments statewide. The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County filled all of its appointment slots for people age 65 and up within 24 hours of opening up the registration process. During the time it was available, residents dealt with server errors and hangups.

King said Kriseman has expressed frustration with the vaccine rollout.

“The state has to do better,” he said. 

Covid numbers continue to tick upward, with an additional 532 cases in Pinellas County Tuesday and seven additional deaths, bringing the cumulative county total since March to 47,739 cases and 1,086 deaths. The two-week percent positivity rate now stands at 9.9 percent after six consecutive days in the double digits.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 365 people hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of Covid-19 in Pinellas County’s acute-care hospitals, with 15.5 percent of adult ICU beds available. More than 14,900 people have been vaccinated against the virus countywide.

 

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