Clearwater coronavirus: Mayor worried some homeless are like ‘petri dish’ that could spread COVID-19

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PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Pasco County Commissioners Office held an hour-long virtual meeting on Tuesday morning with county leaders from Hillsborough and Pinellas to discuss COVID-19 efforts, resources and resiliency.

“We’re each facing difficulties,” Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said at the start of the meeting. “What impacts one community has the potential to impact the surrounding communities.”

He said the goal of the meeting was to have county leaders discuss what they can do to better share resources and support front line workers. He also wanted to know what they can do to support citizens during this trying time and, once this finally passes, how can they build their local economy again.

Here is a summary of the main topics discussed:

HOMELESSNESS

“We’re having a real problem with the homeless not following social distancing,” Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “Especially the hardcore homeless and they have nothing to lose, and I’m afraid of them being a petri dish of, ya know, they could be spreading it.”

8 On Your Side followed up with Hibbard for further comment but he was unavailable. Meanwhile, Tampa’s mayor said they’re having an issue with people not going to temporary housing like Tent City because they can’t continue their lifestyle (using drugs and alcohol) at these facilities.

One homeless advocate we spoke with said it’s ironic that the best way to stop COVID-19 is having good hygiene, yet it’s the resource homeless are lacking the most while everything is shut down.

“They can’t go into showers, they’ve been closed down, [places like gyms and the YMCA]” said homeless volunteer Janet Johnson. “They can’t go to the library, it’s closed so they can’t use the washroom. They’ve got porta potties out there.”

“Ready for Life” is a non-profit that helps homeless youth in Pinellas County. They’re trying to stop homeless congregations by working one-on-one with clients and by appointment only.

“We had to make accommodations where we can protect ourselves and our clients,” Shane Villalpando said. “But we’re still able to get the showers in [for them], food, clothes, the things they need, hygiene items.”

Villalpando said the homeless pandemic has been going on far longer than the COVID-19 pandemic, and now it has to be addressed at the same time in a state of emergency.

“If the homeless issue was addressed as severely as it is now, but only 6 months ago, this would have been a lot easier.”

TESTING KITS

Pasco County representatives said they received 300 kits on Saturday. Hillsborough said they received 1,000 on Saturday and are going to reopen the Raymond James COVID-19 testing site Wednesday. Moore with Pasco county said they need more testing kits and wanted to know if the counties wanted to talk as a unified group to FEMA and CDC about getting more testing kits and PPE to the region. Mayor Castor said from her perspective it’s not as much an issue with testing kits but with not having enough collection kits – the swabs to take the test. She said she thinks a lot of areas are pivoting to stop testing for who has but rather who has the antibodies, as people who have COVID-19 immunity and can be used to take care of people in high-risk categories.

PREPARING FOR OVERCROWDED HOSPITALS

What can counties do if they need more space at their hospitals? Pinellas and Pasco Counties are down in their hospital census but Tampa’s hospital census is up. Mayor Castor said in Tampa, they’re seeing an increased need for ventilators. Pinellas said they’re ready for a surge, they have a hotel secured for people who test positive and have nowhere to go. Tampa said they’re working on a plan where hospital staff who don’t want to go home to families could stay. They have eight cruise ships where healthcare workers could potentially go if they don’t want to go home and get their families sick. Pasco County said in the event their hospitals need more staffing, they have been working with home health and EMS services to potentially help staff.

GETTING ECONOMY BACK AFTER THIS IS OVER

Moore said when all this is over, the counties need a unified message about providing employment. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said they’re putting together an economic task force for recovery right now. They’re trying to get different people from different industries and are also working with representatives in Washington.

TRASH AND SOLID WASTE

Moore said in Pasco County, they’re concerned about seeing solid waste going up because more kids and adults are staying at home. He said the last thing they want is trash on the side of the roads causing health issues. Pasco said they need to be prepared, not caught off guard and they should keep in communication in case they need to help each other. No other counties commented but one person chimed in and said they haven’t even thought of this yet.

FOOD

On a positive note, when Moore asked the county representatives to speak up if they were seeing any food shortages in their area, no one said anything.

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