Lakeland Regional Health is issuing renewed warnings against unmasked public gatherings as it reports its largest numbers of patients with COVID-19 and as Polk County ends a week that saw a record number of new cases. Responding to rising infection numbers, city commissioners have called a special meeting for Monday morning to hear from local health experts.

“Our infectious disease experts urge you to have no unmasked gatherings outside of your immediate family,” the health-care organization declared in large type on social media announcements posted Saturday.

In smaller text: “Unless everyone involved has just tested negative for COVID-19 (, you should avoid unmasked gatherings while community spread of the virus and COVID-19 hospitalizations at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center are the highest they have ever been. Your safety and wellbeing are our top priorities.”

Lakeland Regional Medical Center has treated increasingly more patients with COVID-19 over the last few weeks, rising from 108 on Dec. 21 to a record 215 on Thursday, the latest day available on a chart maintained by the city of Lakeland.

In addition, the hospital is closer to reaching capacity than at any time since the beginning of the pandemic last March, according to figures reported to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

This morning, Lakeland Regional Health reported it had 796 beds in use out of 884 available. On Saturday the figure was 856 beds in use out of a capacity of 911. The trend for the last few months can be seen in the chart below.

In the separate category for intensive care beds, the hospital is in the same range it has been for the last few months, as seen in the chart. This morning, the hospital reported 72 ICU beds in use, a little higher than its normal capacity of 68, but well below its surge capacity of 118.

Polk County is experiencing a surge in new cases. The seven days ending Friday (Saturday numbers aren’t available yet) saw 3,642 new confirmed infections in the county, topping the pervious seven-day period, which reported a then-record 3,021 new cases.

During the previous surge last summer, the highest number of new cases in a seven-day period was 2,278 between July 13 and 19.

The rate of tests that come back positive has also remained higher than desired in recent weeks. Polk’s positivity rate has exceeded 10% every day but one since Dec. 21. Health officials have targeted a maximum of 5% positivity to control the spread of the virus.

In its most recent report, the Florida Department of Health reported Polk’s positivity rate for new cases at 11.62% for Friday.

Lakeland city commissioners have called a special meeting for Monday at 9 a.m. to get a COVID-19 update from local health officials.

Members of the public can watch the virtual meeting online on on cable:  Spectrum Channel 643 or FiOS Channel 43.

The agenda for the meeting does not list the speakers  or include any resolutions to be considered.

When the commission met last Monday, interim Commissioner Don Selvage urged his fellow commissioners to push for a 100-day mask challenge. He stopped short of asking that masks be mandated in Lakeland, as they were for three months last summer, because Gov. Ron DeSantis has removed mask-enforcement powers from local government.

“I will not back off the point that as elected officials, we have a duty to do something here rather than watch these terrible statistics every day come at us,” Selvage said at that meeting.

Mayor Bill Mutz was the only commission member who commented on Selvage’s statements, noting that the rate of new cases dropped during the summer when Lakeland and Winter Haven mandated masks. He tossed the gauntlet to the Polk County Commission, saying, “We’re handicapped to some degree to act as a city. We have an opportunity for the county to lead in this. I would appreciate a response by them on this matter.”

County commissioners told reporters they don’t anticipate countywide action other than encouraging residents to follow CDC guidlines.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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