After hearing local health leaders describe the toll that COVID-19 is taking on their ability to sustain quality health care, city commissioners today rejected interim Commissioner Don Selvage’s call for a renewed mask mandate and instead decided to draft a public awareness campaign.
The decision to pursue a public awareness campaign came at the end of a two-hour special meeting called for commissioners to get updates from the chief executives of Lakeland Regional Health, Watson Clinic and the Florida Department of Health’s Polk County office.
“What we’re really trying to do is create something that is creating community compliance and compassion — that’s what we’re asking for — and ramping up the intentionality,” Mayor Bill Mutz said in summing up the commission approach.
Commissioners asked their staff to draft a public awareness campaign plan by Thursday so that they can discuss it Friday at their 8:30 a.m. agenda study meeting and potentially vote on it at next Tuesday’s 3 p.m. commission meeting.
At the start of the meeting, Mutz noted that the number of new cases in Polk County has not stabilized beyond the anticipated holiday surge. (The 3,572 new infections counted in Polk last week represent by far the highest weekly total since the pandemic began in March.)
In addition, the rate of tests that come back positive has exceeded 10% for more than two weeks, Mutz noted. If Polk reached that milestone, he told The Ledger in November, he would lead a discussion about a possible mask mandate for Lakeland.
Instead, today he focused on creating a public awareness approach that he hoped other cities in Polk and the Polk County Commission would also adopt.
Mutz said he had encouraged Polk County to encourage a mask mandate similar to ones in Hillsborough and Pinellas that carry penalties for businesses, not individuals, for noncompliance. (Those fall outside Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order prohibiting local governments from penalizing individuals violating mask mandates.)
“I am reporting this morning there does not appear to be any current interest in adopting such a resolution by the Polk County Commission,” Mutz said.
All three of the health-care leaders who spoke to the commission this morning stressed the need for a multi-prong approach to preventing the spread of the coronavirus that involves wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands regularly. Much of the recent surge has been exacerbated by small gatherings of friends, they said.
Watson Clinic is strained by the combination of an increasing COVID-19 patient load and difficulty recruiting new employees, Managing Partner Dr. Steven G. Achinger told commissioners.
“We’re at a severe inflection point right here where we could be seeing the overwhelming of our health-care system locally and that’s going to put people in peril who have no COVID-19 whatsoever — people with heart disease, people with cancer, people with other illnesses that we just won’t be able to treat effectively,” Achinger said. “Mandating masks and getting people to take seriously the social distancing are the only tools we have right now until we can get to that vaccination state.”
Visits to Watson Clinic’s urgent care clinics were 80% higher last month than the previous December, he said, and that has causes a severe strain on doctors, nurses and staff that can’t be sustained.
The higher numbers of new cases in Polk County means that the community has a higher number of infected people who haven’t experienced symptoms yet and don’t realize they are spreading the virus, he said. “And that just increases the risk of everybody in the entire community,” he added.
Achinger said he’s been alarmed that some people are resistant to the new COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s our best chance we have to put (COVID-19) behind us, but we’re going to need a large amount of buy-in from the community in order to get this to work.”
Lakeland Regional Health is also feeling strain from increased COVID-19 patient loads, CEO and President Danielle Drummond told commissioners. The number of patients the hospital is treating for the infection has gone from less than 100 to more than 200 in just a few weeks and the hospital has opened overflow and surge areas, she said.
The hospital expects its COVID-19 census to increase since its rise in hospitalizations lags jumps in newly diagnosed cases by about a week, she said. And COVID-19 patients tend to stay in the hospital twice as long as other patients, she said.
“I feel as though we’re able to manage our lines right now but I do feel we’re on the cusp of getting ourselves into a more dangerous situation if these numbers continue to increase,” she said.
Drummond touted Lakeland Regional’s use of bamlanivimab, a new treatment for high-risk patients experiencing COVID-19 patients. The Lakeland hospital has given it to 450 patients, the most of any hospital in Florida, and very few have needed hospitalization.
“It’s scary if we weren’t to apply this treatment what our inpatient numbers would look like right now,” she said.
Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Polk County office of the Florida Department of Health, said that the department’s numbers showing that there have been 42,880 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Polk County tells only part of the story. The department’s numbers don’t account for the many people who didn’t get tested because they didn’t get sick enough or were asymptomatic, she said.
COVID-19 patients at Polk’s five hospitals have increased from around 90 a day six weeks ago to more than 300 now, she said: “So we’re about three times more people in the hospital now with COVID-19, in ICUs and on ventilators than we were four to six weeks ago.”
After the health experts finished their presentations and answering commissioners’ questions, Selvage proposed a 100-day mask mandate. “We’ve reached a point where cheerleading is not enough. This is a crisis if you choose to believe the experts you were talking with this morning,” he said.
One by one, the other commissioners spoke, and each said they prefer a public education approach to tell residents of the growing severity of the problem and remind them to wear masks, keep their distance, wash hands and suggest alternatives to in-person events.