BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — As we find ourselves in the grip of the COVID-19 outbreak, Congressman Charlie Crist and a panel of local and state officials addressed concerns and fielded questions about this threat during a town hall meeting last week held via telephone conference.
“We all have an important role to play here in Pinellas County,” Crist said. “We need to continue to do all we can to flatten the curve and minimize the spread of this virus. The sooner we stop the spread of cases, the sooner we can get back to normal.”
The panel joining Crist on the discussion included Nikki Fried, commissioner of the state’s Agriculture and Consumer Services; Dr. Nichelle Threadgill, chief medical officer for Community Health Centers of Pinellas, Inc., (CHCP); Paul Russo, director of Bay Pines VA Healthcare System and Chris Fisher, legislative director for Congressman Crist.
Crist stressed the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to minimize the spread of the virus, including the practices of social distancing, frequent hand washing and the regular disinfecting of frequently-touched objects and surfaces.
He said those who believe they have been exposed to the virus or are presenting respiratory symptoms or fever, dry cough and shortness of breath should call their doctors or the Florida Dept. of Health, Pinellas County at 727-824-6932. In addition, anyone who may be struggling with mental health issues can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Pinellas help line at 727-791-3434 to be connected with support and resources to make it through these tough times.
Fried noted that one of the top priorities is the continued accessibility of free school meals, since schools are closed.
“For some of our kids it’s the only meal that they can actually count on,” she said.
Information on the Summer BreakSpot website can help school children 18 and under to locate supervised sites where they can enjoy free meals. Children or parents can also text FLKIDSMEALS to 211-211 to find locations, or simply call 211 to speak to someone live, 24 hours a day.
Fried also cautioned against buying from suspicious vendors online, those who claim they have unlimited supplies of toilet paper or hand sanitizer, and never actually send any goods once they procure payment. Other fraudulent companies have sprung up and claim that for a fee, they can expedite the stimulus check citizens were promised by the federal government.
“We’re really encouraging our consumers to be diligent, to do their due diligence,” Fried said. “Go online, do some research…make sure you are not giving out your personal information.”
Addressing the food supply chain, Fried remarked that it is “steady” and “constant,” as she urged people not to hoard food as they did during the first couple of weeks of the crisis.
“Everybody thought everything was going to close down and we would not be able to leave our homes,” she said, “so everybody went to the food stores and cleared out shelves. We’re really asking people not to do that.”
Go to the store and get what you need, Fried urged, but the elderly or those with weaker immune systems that go out once a week to procure food and find no food at the store may leave empty handed. Furthermore, low-income families who are on programs that allow them to get only certain lower-cost brands of bread, oatmeal or other foods need to have those off-brands available to them. Otherwise, they truly go without.
Commissioner Fried also underscored that there is no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food, but suggested that everyone still follow common sense guidelines when it comes to washing fruits and vegetables and thoroughly cooking meats such as poultry and fish.
Threadgill offered that the CHCP are places people can go for care and screening of the virus. These centers have developed a protocol that allows staff to safely see patients and immediately isolate patients with identified risks.
“We also have designated three of our health centers as pediatric wellness centers,” Threadgill said, “so that we can continue to see some of our vulnerable pediatric patients. We know that COVID-19 is out in the community but there are also quite a few other germs and bacteria and vaccine-preventable diseases that we certainly want to protect our patients from.”
Since this is a time that patients are anxious and have lots of questions, she said, the community health centers urge patients to employ Telehealth, a service which involves the use if the internet and other technology to provide services to patients remotely.
Russo pointed out that the Bay Pines VA is acting according to the VA national response plan, and of the four phases of that plan, he noted that we are now in phase two, which includes initial response involving containment and transition from containment to community mitigation. He also pointed out there have been many operational changes made.
“We are currently in the works for expanding our intensive care unit bed capacity for an anticipated surge of patients,” he said.
Though they are about 50 percent staffed, the VA clinics are still open for urgent needs or for veterans who have maintained their appointments, Russo said. Some veterans have transitioned to Telehealth appointments.
Visiting hours at the center are now from 9-8 p.m. and only one visitor per veteran is allowed. Also, at this time the center can conduct tests only for veterans who are symptomatic of the coronavirus. Russo encouraged veterans who believe they are experiencing symptoms to call the network clinical call center at 1-877-741-3400 for evaluation and guidance 24 hours a day from triage nurses and licensed practitioners.
Concerning the recently passed 2.2 trillion dollar federal stimulus bill, Fisher explained that not only working adults will be receiving government checks as part of the relief package but senior citizens who are on social security will receive them as well. These checks, $1,200 for each adult who makes under $75,000 per year with additional checks of $500 per child dependent, will not have an affect any other means tested benefits.
Included in the stimulus bill is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which includes $600 per week in unemployment benefits in addition to the usual $275 per week maximum from the state of Florida.
“The Florida workers can be eligible for up to $875 per week,” Fisher explained.
Due to the enormous amount of requests for these benefits coming in such a short period of time, it has been difficult of late for some to get through as the state’s server has been crashing from the amount of traffic, he said. But he noted that the benefit is retroactive to a person’s date of unemployment.
“That benefit is eligible for 39 weeks,” Fisher said, “if we do go into an extended shelter-in-place.”
Regarding housing, protections that apply to federally assisted mortgages include a 150-day halt to evictions, a 60-day relief for foreclosures and a 12-month penalty-free forbearance.
“Which means if you are having trouble paying your mortgage because of coronavirus,” he said, “you will not have to pay your mortgage for up to 12 months.”
Furthermore, there’s a $345 billion fund to provide small business loan guarantees for businesses to keep employees on payroll and to keep rent and utility expenses paid, up to $10 million. Fisher said that if a business keeps employees on the payroll after eight weeks, all these expenses will be forgiven.
“It’s really going to act more like a grant,” Fisher said, “as long as you’re doing your part to keep your employees in a job, even though we’re facing the crisis.”