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St. Petersburg in line for expanded Covid-19 testing

Margie Manning



Covid-19 test (Photo credit: BayCare Health System)

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is planning Covid-19 testing outreach in St. Petersburg beginning at the end of the month.

Dr. Ulyee Choe

The outreach efforts, scheduled for April 26 and May 22, are focused on those who are “transportation disadvantaged,” Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Pinellas department, told the St. Petersburg City Council Thursday.

He said details of the events are still being finalized. Some logistics still need to be finalized, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas department said.

Testing is a key part of the strategy to contain the spread of Covid-19, but only about 1 percent of Floridians have been tested for the illness. Florida lags 20 other states in testing, according to the Fort Myers News-Press.

The Florida Department of Health prioritizes testing for people showing symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, fever and contact with an infected person. Other states are less restrictive about who gets tested, the News-Press said.

In Hillsborough County, where Raymond James Stadium has served as a drive-thru test site, the number of people seeking tests appears to be dropping off, Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, told the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group on Thursday. The county is working with healthcare systems and other partners to decentralize testing and get it closer to local communities, Holt said.

Dr. Douglas Holt

New rapid tests that return results quickly would be especially useful nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Holt said. “They could be of great value in testing employees because so far that is who have inadvertently bought this virus in.”

In Pinellas County, some hospitals have rapid testing capabilities. “Some of the assisted living facilities and nursing homes that partner with those healthcare systems have had access to those tests,” Choe said.

Both health directors said the Covid-19 peak has yet to hit the area. They each cited models that say the peak is likely to occur in late April or early May.

As of Friday morning, 33 people have died from Covid-19 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties combined — 18 in Hillsborough and 15 in Pinellas. The Pinellas death count includes an 84-year-old woman who died on April 12, and whose death was reported Friday morning report by the state health department.

Holt said he reviewed each of the 18 Hillsborough deaths. “One hundred percent of them had many chronic illnesses, not just one … and they presented to the hospital when they very sick,” Holt said. “Hopefully the messaging is people will seek medical care earlier and get testing sooner. None of the deaths were preventable and several of the cases were infected through family members and friends.”

Without a vaccine or treatment, social distancing – maintaining a separation of six feet from other persons and limiting crowds to fewer than 10 people — remains the best way to control the illness, Choe said.

“I support anything that further enhances social distancing efforts,” Choe said. “That’s the only way we can get past this and flattens the curve so that the healthcare systems aren’t overwhelmed with peaks or surges.”

The state health department recently began reporting racial and ethnic breakdowns for Covid-19 on a county-by-county basis. In Pinellas, 12 percent of the cases are among African Americans. African Americans account for 22 percent of the people hospitalized and 7 percent of the deaths.

“It looks along the same lines as our general population, with some disparities in the hospitalization rates,” Choe said. “But I’m glad Covid has raised the issue with health disparities and the need for health equity. Unfortunately this isn’t a new thing. If you look at other infectious diseases, such as flu and pneumonia deaths, the African American community is disproportionately impacted.”

He cited the county’s HIV initiative, where 42 percent of the new cases last year were among African Americans.

“I hope and pray that we continue to focus on health equity and work on those things that are underlying – the socio-economic factors and the other social determinants of health. I think it is important that we talk about it in both the context of Covid but other health conditions,” Choe said.

Covid-19  doesn’t stop at the county line.

“It doesn’t matter if [the number of cases in] Pinellas is going down but at the same time Hillsborough is going up because of the shared workforce – so it’s important to look at that on a regional basis as well,” Choe said.

By the numbers

Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths as of 10 a.m. Friday, April 17

Pinellas County

  • Total cases: 557
  • Deaths: 15
  • Hospitalizations: 113

Hillsborough County

  • Total cases: 917
  • Deaths: 18
  • Hospitalizations: 146


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