Two Pinellas County men in their 60s have tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the county’s first reported cases of the illness.
The new cases, reported overnight by the Florida Department of Health, emerged as Pinellas County officials ramp up preparations in an effort to contain coronavirus.
Much of their work is aimed at preventing older people and those with chronic health conditions, including nursing home residents, from contracting the illness.
Officials are also concerned about the economic impact on tourism, the county’s biggest industry sector, and are discussing contingency plans to help out hotels that might see cancellations and booking declines.
As of Wednesday morning, 21 Florida residents, including the two Pinellas County men, were diagnosed with coronavirus. Most of the cases are travel-related, the state health department said, including the two Pinellas men. There have been two deaths, in Lee and Santa Rosa counties.
The focus needs to be on the vulnerable population, Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, told Pinellas County commissioners Tuesday. The county has been working with nursing homes, assisted living facilities and the Area Agency on Aging.
“From a nursing home perspective the key point is, if you are sick you cannot go to a nursing home [to visit] – if you have a fever, a respiratory illness, if you traveled especially in those impacted areas over the last 14 days, if there’s any concern for [coronavirus] or any respiratory virus for that matter,” Choe said. “Because ultimately you are exposing a population that is more vulnerable and more at risk for developing severe symptoms.”
There has also been outreach to agencies that deal with the homeless and serve meals to the elderly, said Cathie Perkins, director of emergency management.
Emergency Medical Services is operating as normal, while taking appropriate precautions and following guidance for infection control procedures, said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director.
“If you see an EMS crew wearing a mask, wearing goggles, wearing a gown, please don’t be surprised,” Jameson said. “This is us taking appropriate standard precautions and making sure we are keeping everyone safe. Just because you see a crew wearing protective equipment does not mean that there’s a coronavirus case there. It means we’re taking the right precautions to keep everyone safe.”
The county has activated its emergency operations center and has frequent calls with the Florida Department of Health and municipal partners, said Barry Burton, county administrator.
“Our emergency management is not only thinking about what’s happening today, but what’s happening in the months ahead,” Burton said.
Anyone with symptoms – fever, cough and shortness of breath – should call a special phone number the health department established for Pinellas County: 727-824-6900.
Contingency plans under discussion
The county and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater had a conference call this week with hoteliers and others in the tourism industry to discuss alternative plans for large events, should the situation dictate they are needed.
“We’re monitoring and taking appropriate actions and preparing contingency plans. There’s a big event this weekend in St. Pete,” Burton said, referring to the Firestone Grand Prix. “We’re not saying that people should stay home. In fact that event is going on with all indications.”
Nationwide, many destinations are seeing business meeting cancellations. Pinellas County is somewhat insulated from that because the core visitor is a leisure traveler, Leroy Bridges, vice president of digital and communications for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater told commissioners.
“According to our hotels, we’re sustaining. We’re solid right now for the month of March as it appears, with not many cancellations,” Bridges said. “However, we’re going to start turning our attention very soon to future bookings. As you would imagine a lot of customers aren’t in a mindset of booking that next trip right now. Our hoteliers’ concern and certainly our concern as we move out of March and into April, May and June are future bookings.
“The good news is that our marketing strategy and our visitor shifts to more in-state and closer to home with the summertime.”
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is staying in communication with hotels throughout the county, said Steve Hayes, president and CEO. The agency for now is not changing its marketing plans, but is continuing to look at strategies for going forward, he said.