Lakeland mask mandate fails without vote, health experts warn about rise in hospitalizations

Coronavirus

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Lakeland’s mayor vowed to revisit a mask mandate after the city commission refused to take up his executive order for a vote Monday.

Mayor Bill Mutz said he was “extremely disappointed.”

“I believe we’ll be accountable for that. The numbers will play the music. We will see the results and we will be responsible for not worrying about what matters most,” he said.

In a meeting that lasted three hours, medical leaders from Lakeland Regional Health and Watson Clinic raised the alarm about rising COVID-19 hospitalizations in their facilities.

“I don’t know what else could possibly be done to try to wake people up that this is a serious, serious threat,” said Dr. Steven Achinger, managing partner and chairman of the board at Watson Clinic.

In recent days, Polk County’s positive test result rate jumped to 15.1%. Ten percent or below is the goal.

“I think that, in my mind, is a concern and a red flag and something we need to pay particular attention to,” said Danielle Drummond, Lakeland Regional Health Chief Operating Officer.

The latest update from the Florida Department of Health shows 183 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 2,225.

Lakeland has the highest amount of coronavirus cases in Polk County’s at 771.

Dr. Achinger told commissioners, in the last week, Watson Clinic identified more coronavirus cases than ever.

“The cases we are seeing today will lead to deaths,” said Dr. Achinger. “This is a critical time point. Actions that we take as a community right now are going to impact people’s lives.”

“My concern level is high and it continues to rise,” Dr. Hal Escowitz, Chief Quality Officer and Chief Medical Informatics Officer at Lakeland Regional Health, told 8 On Your Side.

Lakeland Regional Health is seeing a growing number of COVID-19 ICU patients but capacity is not yet an issue, according to Dr. Escowitz.

Patient demographics have shifted from nursing home residents to younger people.

“A lot of it can be attributed to the lockdown and social distancing and things being slowly relaxed,” said Dr. Escowitz.

Lakeland Regional Health is seeing more pediatric patients test positive when they show up for non-COVID-related reasons.

However, no pediatric patients have been seriously ill from coronavirus, Dr. Escowitz said.

Despite pleas from medical experts, Lakeland city commissioners did not second Mayor Mutz’s motion to enact a mask mandate.

Many expressed concerns over individual freedoms.

“People are asking if they’re mandating this today, what might they mandate tomorrow?” said commissioner Chad McLeod.

“Every time we do something like this, there is a large element of personal freedom in here that I’m deeply concerned about,” said commissioner Scott Franklin.

Franklin, who is running for U.S. Congress, questioned the benefits of wearing masks.

“There is no conclusive evidence that face coverings, not N95s, not surgical masks, just homemade face coverings, are going to prevent the spread of COVID,” he said.

“The literature supports the use of masks in public spaces as a way of preventing the spread of respiratory droplets,” said Dr. Achinger.

Dozens of callers, who provided input after commissioners declined to take up the motion, showcased the divide.

“If you are sitting on that commission right now and you are not willing to mandate
masks, you forfeit your right to say you care about the health and well being of the people in Lakeland,” said one caller.

“What is most at risk here today is the loss of our liberty,” said another caller. “That is how communism and fascism is governed. Do you support our constitution, Mr. Mayor?”

“I was very disappointed and believe we failed to focus on what truly matters; avoiding unnecessary loss of life!” Mayor Mutz told 8 On Your Side.

Polk County board chair Bill Braswell and commissioner George Lindsey told 8 On Your Side their views on a countywide mask requirement have not changed.

They both are opposed.

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