After a briefing from the director of the county’s health department, the Pasco County Commission has decided to continue its mask mandate — at least for now.
Mike Napier, director of the Pasco County office of the Florida Department of Health, told commissioners at their Sept. 21 meeting that positive COVID-19 cases had been trending in the wrong direction recently.
“I wish I had better news as far as what our cases have been over the last several weeks,” Napier said. “We’ve started to see some increased number of cases,” Napier said.
Pasco County’s cumulative number of cases he told commissioners was 8,834 cases, as of Sept. 21, the health director reported.
“The concern here really is, we were doing pretty well back in the early part of September, averaging about 3%, as a rolling average on our positivity. Last week, it was the first time in almost a month that we got almost a 6% positivity rate and we had 1,300 cases.
“The number that should be a little bit alarming to you is that in this past week, we’ve had a 61% increase in cases in the last seven days. So, we’re headed in the wrong direction at this point,” Napier said.
“At the low mark, the county was averaging 29 cases a day — to where we are today, where we’re averaging almost 50 day, and that’s over a two-week period,” Napier said.
“I know that schools were a big question.
“We had a total of 79 students and 26 staff that have tested positive, for 105 total cases (as of Sept. 18),” he said.
“There’s a lot of criteria that goes into the determination of whether or a not a student has to be excluded or not,” Napier said.
Out of the nearly 1,400 exposures at school, there are 857 students and staff currently quarantined, but also 542 people have been released, Napier said.
The public health officer said he knows there’s a lot of interest on when it would be appropriate to lift mask mandates and social distancing restrictions.
“From public health standpoint, I have to tell you, when we have a vaccine or when we have medication to treat COVID,” Napier said. From a practical standpoint, the number of positive cases needs to be lower. “We’re at 49 averaging a day.”
“We’re trending higher in our positivity rate. We were at 3%, we’re at 4% right now. That 1% does matter,” Napier said.
He said he’s on regular conference calls with health officers and county officials around the region.
“We’re all getting the same questions, right? We’re all trying to come up with that answer.
“We are looking at a regional approach for face coverings,” Napier said.
They’re trying to reach a consensus on the numbers and benchmarks to use.
“We’re actually looking to the academics, to be able to come up with something from a regional standpoint. We know that we have a community that moves from Pasco to Pinellas, and from Pinellas into Pasco. Hernando. Hillsborough — all of those counties.”
Initially, the increase in cases stemmed from the virus spreading within families, the public health official said. But now, there’s community spread.
Labor Day could have affected the spread. It’s too early to tell whether the recent opening of bars has had an impact, he added.
COVID-19 remains a threat
“The pandemic is not over. I understand that face coverings are inconvenient and uncomfortable, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association continue to support the use of face coverings to reduce the exposure of COVID-19,” Napier said.
He continued: “Just as recently as last week, the CDC director Robert Redfield said, “The best defense that we currently have against this virus are the important mitigation efforts of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and being careful around crowds.”
Commissioner Ron Oakley said most of the people he’s heard from favor continuing the requirement for masks.
“I’d say that 80% to 85% of the citizens think it’s too early to remove masks, which is good to hear because I think they realize that it’s not over, and they still need to be taking precautions,” Oakley said.
Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles said steps that have been taken to reduce the spread have been working.
“The county has seen a decrease of about 72%, in its seven-day rolling average, from its peak,” Biles said.
Commissioner Mike Wells said he’s not a big fan of wearing a mask. But, he added: “I wear a mask when I have to. It could possibly save lives.”
At the same time, he has empathy for business owners who are trying to impose the mandate.
“I’ve seen businesses get in arguments with folks. It’s just tough,” Wells said. “I’ve been in WaWa, people yelling. I’ve been in Walmart. I’ve been in Target. Folks yelling. ‘You’ve got to wear a mask. You’ve got the wrong mask,’” Wells said.
But, Wells told Napier that he respects him, and added: “I support it (the mask mandate) until you tell us otherwise.”
Napier said if the numbers were trending down, he would be in a different position.
As it stands now, he told board members he wouldn’t lift the requirement before getting another update, which is expected in October.
Published September 30, 2020