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Hillsborough County leaders restrict group gatherings to 10, work on expanding testing

Posted at 8:13 PM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-20 04:20:51-04

TAMPA, Fla. — City and county leaders are taking more steps to try to slow the spread of coronavirus in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy group met, agreeing to extend the emergency declaration and further narrow limits on gathering sizes from 50 people to 10 people.

Officials said as more testing becomes available, they expect cases of COVID-19 to increase.

“While people might think they have a low risk of dying you can still get quite sick with this virus no matter what age. And there’s a big difference between not evacuating during a hurricane, where you assume the risk personally and then put others at risk,” said Dr. Douglas Holt, the director of the Hillsborough County Health Department.

Holt reported there are currently 19 cases, with 450 people they are monitoring closely.

Leaders are working to expand testing, looking at mobile test collection sites. They said they were conducting walkthroughs and hoped to have the first site, Raymond James stadium, opened by the weekend.

The second site would be the fairgrounds. The county administrator said everyone is constrained by the availability of collection and testing kits and dealing with a shortage of personal protection equipment for healthcare providers.

“We have enough that we feel confident we can open up Raymond James. The reason we’re staging it and waiting to open up the fairgrounds is to make sure we have enough supply coming in behind it. So as soon as we are confident we have the supply we’ll open up the gates and let people come through,” said Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill.

Merrill said the process could include a call center staffed by nurses, where people would answer screening questions before being directed for testing.

“I want everybody to understand it’s not because we’ve been slow. It’s not because we don’t know what we’re doing, it’s because we can’t open drive-through facilities without having the abilities to take the samples and have a reliable system to track them. The sites are ready with all the other logistics and as more testing equipment is available we’ll open more facilities,” Merrill told the group.

Group members had tough questions about testing. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor addressed her concerns afterwards.

“Our testing is woefully inadequate. I’ve been in law enforcement for 31 years and I’ve never seen this lack of unpreparedness on the federal level so my recommendation to everyone is to conduct yourself as if you have this virus. Take those simple steps to avoid contracting it. Try to stay as far away from individuals as you can and hopefully we will get the supplies that will allow us to adequately test,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

Holt also explained they are working to increase telehealth services, develop the capability to rapidly assess and respond to nursing homes as they are starting to see older individuals infected, making sure patients are discharged to the appropriate places and exploring alternate care facilities to help relieve hospitals if it gets to that point.

The county administrator also proposed limiting restaurants to delivery only and enacting an overnight curfew, with exceptions for work. The group did not approve either idea, but plans to discuss them again next week.

“The only way we’re gonna break that cycle of spreading the virus is to ensure we’re quarantining ourselves. I thought a curfew would be an extremely helpful measure in ensuring that maybe 6, 7, 8 hours a day we know that that virus isn’t spreading because individuals aren’t quarantining themselves,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Other group members did not want to approve the proposal, arguing the potential impact needs to be worked through further.

“I think that that needs to wait. That’s not necessary right now. I have no doubt it will become necessary next week. But at this point I don’t think that we need a curfew,” said Mayor Castor.

Castor also recommended decisions be made by a smaller group of elected officials The group is currently made up of the county administrator, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, the chairman of the school board and three county commissioners.

“I just brought up the fact that again I think that the decisions in this instance need to be made by individuals that have been elected by the citizens to represent them,” she said.

The group did not come to a vote on that, but did agree to now meet twice a week.

“I certainly by my actions today show I’m responsible in bringing back ideas and recommendations,” said Merrill. “But under my authority, if there is something that happens even before Monday that’s a clear and present danger to this community I will take action make no mistake about that. But I’m not gonna do it irresponsibly I’m not gonna do it irrationally. I hope everyone understands that.”