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Hillsborough Leaders Talk Coronavirus Testing, WrestleMania At Emergency Meeting

Dr. Douglas Holt with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough briefs county commissioners and local mayors on the coronavirus.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Dr. Douglas Holt with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough briefs county commissioners and local mayors on the coronavirus.

Hillsborough County commissioners declared a local state of emergency for coronavirus, postponed area events -- but not WrestleMania -- and raised concerns about the lack of widespread testing during an emergency policy meeting Thursday.

Commissioners said they want better information to share with residents about where to go to get tested for COVID-19. They suggested designating certain locations as testing hubs.

Dr. Douglas Holt, head of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, said leaders have been discussing possibilities like that, but it’s a complicated issue.

He said the county is working with private groups like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics to receive and process test kits. The challenge is figuring out how to safely collect specimens from patients.

“LabCorp or Quest will provide kits, as many as you want, but you can’t send the patient to LabCorp to be collected,” he said. “So you can get the kits, the step is how do you get what you need from the patient to put that in the kit to give them back to LabCorp?

“The Department of Health policy is we will accept any samples collected or in very specific targeted people, we will work to get the samples, but we are not able to collect the mass numbers that would be needed both now and in the future."

More planning needed

The commission directed Holt to work with the major health organizations in the area to figure out how to solve the problem.  

The plan would also address both how to test people and how to create a way for people to get health advice about whether a COVID-19 test is even necessary. Residents are urged to contact their primary care provider for those kind of concerns now, but not everyone has one.

RELATED: WUSF's complete coronavirus coverage

Emergency responders in the county say they have special protocol in place for when a call comes in that could involve coronavirus, and they have ample supplies of protective gear so far. But first responders cannot be relied on to address every potential concern in the county and have to focus on medically-necessary cases.

County chairman Les Miller said he believes the county is prepared to handle more cases, but worries about a "bombardment." He said he's pleased with how the state has shared information with counties.

But when it comes to the federal government's performance:

“To me, it just seems as though they have not come forth and really shared with all the states the things we possibly should be doing,” Miller said.

WrestleMania still on...for now

Officials also discussed what to do about major events planned in the Tampa Bay area.

They reiterated announcements made earlier in the day by the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the NCAA about cancelled sports games. But WrestleMania 36, which Tampa is scheduled to host in early April, is still up in the air.

The WWE held a press conference around the same time Thursday and said it's preparing a contingency plan but remains committed to holding the event at Raymond James Stadium next month.

Ultimately, it’s up to the county to decide whether to allow it continue. Commissioners chose to wait until next week to make the call, when they will have to gather anyway to determine if it’s necessary to extend the state of emergency.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said he hopes leaders and the WWE choose to err on the side of caution.

"In an event like WrestleMania, you're not just going to have people traveling from the United States, you're going to have people travelling internationally and why would we subject our community to the unknown?" he said.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced this weekend's St. Patrick's Day festivities, including the River O'Green Fest downtown and the parade in Ybor City have been postponed.

She said it's responsible to avoid large gatherings of people at this point. But she hopes the events are rescheduled, both for the people who want to celebrate their heritage, as well as for those who depend on these kinds of events financially.

"The safety and security of our citizens will always be number one,  but I also have to consider the economic impact,” she said. “You think about something really on the scale of things as simple as a parade – there are a lot of people, vendors, that's a paycheck for them.”

Castor said she’ll make similar considerations for people who work at local stadiums and arenas, as well as those in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Schools are preparing ahead of spring break

Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Eakins, who is scheduled to retire June 30, attended the meeting. He told reporters the district is preparing now in case schools have to remain closed after next week’s spring break.

He said that, as of now, classes will resume as scheduled. However, he's telling families to get familiar with online learning portals just in case.

As for students who don’t have access to computers at home, Eakins said, “We’re working with our IT departments to identify some devices across our district we could potentially loan out.”

He said families can expect emails and robocalls from the district over the next week with updates.

“We’re going to be very communicative over spring break to make sure parents know where we stand, what guidance we’ve received, to ensure that there is a complete understanding among all individuals, both our students and parents, but our employees as well,” Eakins said.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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