A mandatory face covering ordinance has saved lives in Pinellas County, according to the chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare West Florida.
Dr. Larry Feinman was among a panel of doctors who told the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners that masks and social distancing are the primary tools available to control the spread of Covid-19 and that those tools are working in the county.
After hearing from the doctors Tuesday, the board voted to extend a state of local emergency to Oct. 2, effectively keeping the mask ordinance in place.
Commissioners also agreed to delegate the authority to renew the state of emergency to Barry Burton, the county administrator. One commissioner said delegating that authority frees up the board to do more work. Another commissioner said it would stifle public comment about the face covering ordinance, which has been controversial since it took effect June 24.
Dozens of Pinellas County residents have called into the online county board meetings weekly to comment on the ordinance. Most of the callers have asked commissioners to repeal the measure.
Those calls continued Tuesday, even after HCA’s Feinman and physicians from BayCare Health System, Advent Health and Community Health Centers of Pinellas concurred that face coverings and social distancing are the most effective measures available at this time to slow the spread of the virus.
Each of the four doctors agreed the Pinellas mask order had made a difference.
“You have saved literally hundreds of lives by this mask ordinance, and to stop it now I think would be foolhardy,” Feinman said.
“We’re still not back to normal in the number of people with Covid that are in our hospitals. They’ve dropped dramatically from where they were at the peak, but they’re still higher than they were in early May. We’re still seeing people coming in with Covid and people are still unfortunately passing with Covid,” said Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer, BayCare Health System.
“Any successful intervention policy has to address transmission due to infectious patients that may not realize they are infected. We know that masks are savings lives. Wearing masks is one of the most selfless acts someone can take right now because we know it protects the person wearing the mask, but even more so it protects folks from you if you should have the infection,” said Dr. Michael Longley, chief medical officer, Advent Health North Pinellas.
Pinellas County schools will offer another option in October for students who have been learning at home to return to the classroom. “I suspect there will be quite a few who will return to the classrooms, so we’re looking at bringing more people into those spaces and our ability to isolate diminishes a bit. So how do we protect ourselves and stay safe as we bring more people into offices to work, into stores and businesses? Masks are the tool to do that,” said Dr. Nichelle Threadgill, chief medical officer, Community Health Centers of Pinellas.
County commissioners also received a letter of support for masks from four physicians in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, according to Commissioner Ken Welch.
Feinman told commissioners that the physicians might collectively come up with some standards for determining when the mask ordinance might safely be lifted.
There won’t be any easy answers, Burton cautioned.
“Some of those metrics are difficult. There is no set guidance on metrics. I think the experts are going to continue to recommend masks throughout the pandemic,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health for Pinellas County,
The state of local emergency, which is the basis for the face covering ordinance, has to be reauthorized every seven days under state law. That meant commissioners have had to take a vote on reauthorization — and open the floor for public comment — during their twice a month work sessions as well as their twice a month regular board meetings.
“Our work is piling up because we have never taken public comment at our work sessions,” said Commissioner Janet Long, who proposed delegating the authority to renew the state of local emergency to Burton. “When we’re taking public comment for hours at a time, things are not getting done that are our citizens are waiting for us to get done.”
Commissioner Kathleen Peters opposed Long’s proposal.
“I get you are frustrated with the same people calling in again and again and saying the same thing. But I think because we serve them and they put us in this position, I would hate to take away the opportunity for them to speak about something they feel passionate about, “ Peters said.
Peters, along with Commission Vice Chair Dave Eggers and Commissioner Charlie Justice, voted against delegating the authority for future extensions. Commission Chair Pat Gerard and Commissioner Karen Seel joined Long and Welch in voting in favor of delegating that authority.
Pinellas County residents can call in to comment on the mask ordinance or any other issue during the commission’s regular meetings, Gerard said.