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Pinellas commissioners hold off on additional COVID-19 restrictions as ICU beds fill

Margie Manning

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Test sites at the Mahaffey Theater and Tropicana Field are seeing robust testing.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Pinellas County hospital intensive care units is higher than it’s ever been.

“As of this morning, the ICUs reported there are 111 COVID patients in ICU beds, the most we’ve had to date,” Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County, told the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday morning. It’s the first time the number of occupied ICU beds in Pinellas County has topped 100, and is an indicator of the severity of the disease, Choe said.

Pinellas commissioners extended the county’s local state of emergency Tuesday to July 17, a move that allows the county to access federal funds and take other emergency actions to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pinellas County also expects to announce a new COVID-19 testing site later Tuesday. Details were not provided during the morning board meeting.

The board voted after a 90-minute update on the crisis, including hearing from about a dozen county residents who called in to the online meeting. The callers were divided between those advocating additional county actions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and others opposed to any further restrictions.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported there’s been a total of 9,032 confirmed cases in Pinellas County since the state began tracking the outbreak in early March. That’s an increase of 273 cases Monday. There have been a total of 206 deaths in Pinellas, including seven additional deaths since Monday.

Over the last two weeks, there’s been an increase in weekly death counts, with 43 deaths reported in the past week. The seven-day rolling case counts, or averages, are 364 cases per day, and the seven-day rolling positivity rate, the percentage of people who test positive for COVID-19, is 13 percent, Choe said.

“We continue to see community-wide spread in Pinellas affecting all ages, mainly occurring in congregate and indoor settings, in long-term care facilities and also in summer camps, day cares, restaurants, country clubs and gyms — any place people are congregated, mainly indoors,” Choe said.

He said that underscores the message to maintain social distancing and wear masks. “We don’t want to see the healthcare system strained further, because that was the reason we flattened the curve.”

Hospital systems in Pinellas County have surge plans in place to handle increased capacity for COVID-19 patients, said County Administrator Barry Burton. When some commissioners pressed for specifics on those surge plans, Choe described the plans as “fluid,” but he said he would get more details to bring back to the board.

BayCare Health System and HCA West Florida hospitals are delaying some non-urgent medical procedures to free up hospital beds, but beds are just part of the issue, Burton said.

“A lot of that has to do with staffing, and they are currently in the process of requesting resources to be able to staff up,” Burton said.

To slow the spread, Florida has suspended on-premises consumption at alcohol in bars statewide, and Pinellas County has imposed a county-wide face covering requirement for indoor public spaces.

One South Florida county, Miami-Dade County, recently closed restaurants and is allowing take-out only. Burton echoed Choe’s comments that all indoor places, not just restaurants, are an issue.

The county is working with long-term care facilities to set up special facilities to handle COVID-19 patients. The county also has new plans for shelters that might be needed in the event of a hurricane to take into account social distancing required to protect against the spread of COVID-19, Burton said. Instead of allowing 20 square feet for each shelter resident, the county is allocating 60 square feet per person, and will require temperature checks and masks.

Although the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners has no control over schools, some of the commissioners expressed concerns about a new state requirement, issued Monday, that public schools must provide in-person classes five days a week.

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