U.S. Rep. Darren Soto said he is disappointed by neighboring Georgia starting to ease its COVID-19 shutdown before health officials are recommending it. Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee, made the comments to about 30 members and guests of the African American Chamber of Commerce Polk County during a Zoom teleconference this afternoon.

The teleconference was convened by the business group in part to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the black community. However, invited health-care officials did not attend.

Recent national, state and local news reports show that the black population is disproportionately impacted by the virus. While blacks comprise about 15 percent of Florida’s population, 21 percent of the deaths have been among black residents.

In Polk County, black people account for 20 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Florida Department of Health coronavirus dashboard, compared with 16 percent of the population.

Getting a handle on the virus and understanding how widespread it is starts with testing, Soto said. “It is through testing that we get our freedom back economically”

Lifting stay-at-home orders too soon may cause a resurgence of the virus, he said.

“We cannot leave this to the states,” Soto said. “One state opens and it impacts the neighboring states. As Georgia opens, if it screws up, it will impact Jacksonville and Tallahassee and beyond.”

Soto gave a rundown of Congressional funding allocations to help people and businesses survive the shutdown and to help health workers, hospitals and nursing homes contend with the pandemic.

Soto participated in a teleconference held by the African American Chamber of Commerce Polk County.

The funding bill passed by the U.S. Senate this week included $25 billion to start providing free testing across the nation, Soto said. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

So far, testing has mostly been limited to those with symptoms, to those who have had contact with a COVID-19 patient and have underlying health issues, and to first responders and health care workers.

As of tonight, only 5,530 people had been tested in Polk County, out of a population of more than 700,000.

One way to improve access to testing in under-served communities is to provide mobile testing units, Soto said.

While mobile testing units are operating in Orange and Osceola counties, it is “ not acceptable” that there is none in Polk County, he said. Conversations are under way but nothing has been finalized, he said.

In response to Pastor Eddie Lake’s question about how officials know where the mobile units are needed, Soto said, “We get daily updates where cases are happening and mortalities. Polk County has taken a fairly high hit and it is disturbingly high in the African-American community.”

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