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Pinellas County Sheriff: ‘Big problem’ at jail as COVID-19 cases rise

Margie Manning

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Pinellas County Jail (Photo credit: Google maps)

Pinellas County might stop booking people into the county jail except for very serious offenses because of an increase in COVID-19 cases in the jail.

“We now unfortunately have a big problem at the jail. In the last 48 hours, we had close to 20 people, between inmates and staff, who tested positive out there,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners Thursday.

Dr. Angus Jameson, director of Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, also told the commissioners that some hospital leaders are becoming concerned about hospital capacity as the county sees a growing number of COVID-19 cases.

Commissioners held an emergency meeting Thursday as the county reported its largest one-day increase in cases.

At the Pinellas County jail, most of the people affected right now are staff, not inmates, Gualtieri said, “but we’ve got a whole bunch of people who have been tested and we are waiting for results.”

Two people among the 30-member day shift in the inmate record staff tested positive, so the entire shift was sent home for 14 days. C-Barracks was totally shut down and quarantined, Gualtieri said.

“I am concerned about new people coming in that environment. I had a phone call earlier today with the police chiefs and told them most likely we’re going to get some directive out that unless it’s a very serious case, I don’t want to put people into that situation where they book them into the jail,” he said. “I think we’ll have to come up with alternatives, probably stop that unless we absolutely have to book them in.”

Commissioners did not ask Gualtieri about reports that some people who took part in Black Lives Matter protests in the county were being held in jail overnight without bail. Gualtieri did not raise the issue either.

Hospital capacity is a key metric in the COVID-19 battle. Many businesses were shut down or had operations curtailed in an effort to slow the spread and “flatten the curve,” preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed with more cases than they could handle.

During the early days of the pandemic, elective medical procedures were cancelled and some hospitals downsized staff as a result, Jameson said. Now, with elective procedures ramping up, hospital volumes are intermittent and some hospitals are struggling to match staffing with demand, he said.

“I am starting to hear a little bit of concern from hospital leadership that they’re not having as much surplus capacity as they might like if things are actually ramping up over the next week or two,” Jameson said.

As of Thursday, 28 percent of the hospital beds in Pinellas County were unoccupied, according to the Tampa Bay Partnership’s regional dashboard. Before this week, about 30 percent or more of hospital beds were unoccupied.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County, said he is watching the hospital capacity numbers closely.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 1,862 total COVID-19 cases in Pinellas County. The county added 116 cases to the total on Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Health’s daily dashboard. Choe said there were 124 new cases. The reason for the difference in the number was not clear.

A one-day increase doesn’t necessarily show a trend. But from May 30 to June 3, there was an average daily count of 27 cases a day, while from June 4-8 the average daily count was 54 cases a day, said Barry Burton, Pinellas County administrator.

“It’s not surprising the numbers went up. As we reopen the economy and increase the number of tests we’ll see more cases,” Burton said. “But we’re also seeing more community cases and we’re seeing people who have forgotten that we still have a serious issues with the coronavirus in the community.”

There’s also been an increase in the percent of people who test positive, Choe said. The county had been averaging about a 2 percent “positivity rate,” but in the last seven days that rate has been closer to 3 to 4 percent, Choe said.

The World Health Organization has said it is safe to reopen the economy as long as the positivity rate is under 5 percent, Burton said, “but clearly the trend is not good.”

Younger individuals under 40 make up the largest growing age group of new cases, especially those in their late 20s and 30s, Choe said.

“We’re seeing from a health equity lens an increase in communities of color, with 24 percent of all cases coming from the Black community and 11 percent of cases from the Hispanic community. We’re also seeing a slight increase in women, with women comprising about 57.2 percent of the cases.”

Burton told commissioners the county is working on increased marketing to remind people to continue to socially distance by staying six feet away from others, to wear masks and to wash their hands frequently. Pinellas County is looking at a joint marketing effort with Hillsborough County and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, possibly with high-profile individuals delivering the message, Burton said.

Commissioner Ken Welch said the county has to find a way to reach more people, especially millennials.

“We did well at safer at home. What about safer at work and safer at play,” Burton said. “We knew what to do at home. We were trying to keep ourselves separated. We’ve forgotten that as we reopen the economy, as we go back to work and play and get on with life … They’re going to work on developing that message and we’ll bring it back to you as they refine that more.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike Manning

    June 11, 2020at4:28 pm

    Plain scary. And totally avoidable.

  2. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    June 11, 2020at6:28 pm

    He kept the protesters overnight knowing he had this brewing, need a new Sheriff ASAP.

  3. Avatar

    Maria Scruggs

    June 13, 2020at8:04 am

    I am happy to see Dr.Choe in the conversation. From day one I have been concerned about our approach to responding to this pandemic. Our emergency response to COVID 19 has resembled that of a hurricane as opposed to a pandemic. When responding to a hurricane we will be able to assess the damage in a matter of a couple of days. In a pandemic our ability to assess the damage is a moving target. We have once again put the politics over the people. It is time to push the reset button and bring the appropriate players to the table in order to develop a long term plan that balances public health vs.public economic health!

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