Coronavirus concerns impact Central Florida and Tampa Bay

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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An estimated 60,000 people filled the streets of Ybor City for Tampa Pride last year, celebrating Tampa Bay’s growing LGBTQ community. It’s a record that organizers were expecting to break this year until March 12, when they postponed their sixth annual outing originally scheduled for March 28.

Since Tampa Pride’s return to Hillsborough County in 2015, attendees, vendors, parade participants and community sponsors have grown year after year. Its expansion is made possible by its supporters, Tampa Pride President Carrie West says.

“Last year we maxed out and had to turn people away,” he reflects. “We still wanted to grow and that’s what we’ve done. Through our partnerships and working together to make it happen, this year’s parade, festival and food truck alley are sold out. Everyone has done their part for the good of the community.”

It was with a heavy heart but for the good of that community that Tampa Pride postponed its annual gathering until May 30, and the celebration isn’t alone in rescheduling. The seventh annual Manatee Pride, a fundraiser for LGBTQ youth originally slated for March 21, has been moved to May 23.

The LGBT+ Center Orlando has suspended or changed its regularly scheduled programming through April 6. The Tampa Bay LGBT Chamber of Commerce has suspended in-person activities until further notice. This year’s AIDS Walk Orlando, which benefits Central Florida’s Hope & Help and was originally scheduled for April 18, has been postponed and as of press time, not yet rescheduled. Equality Florida, the state’s largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for LGBTQ Floridians, has cancelled or postponed all public events.

“Stay strong,” the organization shared. “Our community is not unfamiliar with the phenomena of stigma and epidemics. We have to remember what HIV/AIDS taught us about taking care of each other in a climate of fear and real risk.”

The changes are a response to the very real dangers of potentially contracting COVID-19, a new coronavirus first discovered in late 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO), which directs international health within the United Nations and leads partners in worldwide health responses, declared it a pandemic on March 11.

They did so two days after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida and two before President Donald Trump declared one nationwide. On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that mass gatherings postpone in-person events of 10 people or more people across the nation, prompting further action from local governments and DeSantis.

On March 17, the governor closed bars and clubs for 30 days. “We hope this will reduce gathering in large numbers,” he said.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus shared before the decision. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly.

“It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” he continued. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”

WHO advises that coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which can infect animals and/or humans. They are known to cause respiratory infections in humans ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, and COVID-19 reactions have been mild to severe, including illnesses resulting in death.

As of mid-March, the most common symptoms have been fever, tiredness and a dry cough, the organization describes. They note that some patients have aches and pains, nasal congestion, a runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea, with mild symptoms beginning gradually.

The organization advises that around 80% of those infected recover from the disease without needing special treatment. They also share that nearly one out of every six people becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing, cautioning that the elderly and individuals with underlying medical conditions including high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes are considered higher risk.

The LGBTQ community at large may also be considered a high risk demographic, a growing number of organizations have asserted. More than 100 LGBTQ and LGBTQ-supportive groups released an open letter to health care providers and the media on March 11, outlining the risks our community faces.

The letter was initiated by six organizations: the National LGBT Cancer Network, GLMA: Health Professions Advancing LGBTQ Equality, Whitman-Walker Health, SAGE, the New York Transgender Advocacy Group and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. Additional high profile signers include GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, InterPride, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality and The Trevor Project.

“As the media and health communities are pushed into overdrive about COVID-19, we need to make sure the most vulnerable among us are not forgotten,” National LGBT Cancer Network Deputy Director Dr. Scout begins in the letter. “Our smoking rates alone make us extremely vulnerable and our access to care barriers only makes a bad situation worse. This letter outlines simple steps to ensure no population is further stigmatized by a virus.”

“As an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of LGBTQ communities, we urge LGBTQ individuals to practice measures recommended by public health experts, such as frequent hand washing, to prevent the spread of this virus,” MD., MPA. and GLMA President Scott Nass adds. “At the same time, like our colleagues who joined the open letter, we call on public health officials to ensure the LGBTQ community is considered and included in the public health response to COVID-19 based on potential risk factors that exist in our community.”

In addition to the three million LGBTQ elders living in the U.S., a demographic that as of mid-March faces a 15% COVID-19 mortality rate, the organizations advise that the LGBTQ community’s increased vulnerability stems from three primary factors.

First, that the LGBTQ population uses tobacco at rates that are 50% higher than the general population. “COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that has proven particularly harmful to smokers,” it reads.

Second, that the LGBTQ population has higher rates of HIV and cancer. This “means a greater number of us may have compromised immune systems,” it notes, “leaving us more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.”

Finally, that the LGBTQ community continues to experience discrimination, unwelcome attitudes and a lack of understanding from providers in staff in many health care settings. “As a result,” the letter explains, “many are reluctant to seek medical care except in situations that feel urgent – and perhaps not even then.”

Health care organizations throughout Central Florida and Tampa Bay have worked diligently to change that for years, rising to the occasion yet again as concerns over COVID-19 have developed. Metro Inclusive Health, which offers more than 100 health, wellness and pharmacy services throughout Tampa Bay, has implemented temporary precautions to protect their patients.

“For 27 years, Metro Inclusive Health has made your health and safety a top priority,” the organization shared March 17. “We have strived to be at the forefront of public health and wellness, especially in times of crisis [and have] taken significant steps to continue serving our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The organization has asked patients experiencing two or more of the following symptoms – a fever of 100.4 or higher, a dry cough, shortness of breath or body aches – to call before entering its health center, even if they’ve previously scheduled an appointment.

“We’re monitoring everything closely and taking outreach on a case-by-case basis,” Chief Marketing & Experience Officer Brian Bailey adds. “We immediately implemented a clean spaces and social distancing policy in all current programming and throughout the health center.”

Metro has also adjusted its curriculum, allowing them to develop a strong lead on how to move essential programming to a virtual format. “We are prepared to employ social media and online presentation services to deliver programming pre-designed for virtual settings,” they advise. “Virtual tools and telehealth will also assist in the delivery of behavioral health and medical treatment services.”

Empath Partners in Care (EPIC), which provides a wide variety of medical care, counseling, support and prevention services throughout Tampa Bay, has made similar strides. “We are screening every individual that comes in with a series of questions,” Executive Director Joy Winheim explains. “If they meet the threshold, we are masking them and asking them to contact their primary care provider.”

EPIC’s group services have been cancelled and they are currently providing to-go- meals on their Tampa Bay campuses. “We will pre-bag up food pantry bags and provide to those that are in need,” Winheim says, “and we are only seeing absolutely essential appointments. We will do as much over the phone as possible.”

Experts agree that education is essential in combating COVID-19. That’s why the Orlando Immunology Center (OIC), one of the country’s leading HIV, hepatitis and STD centers, provided Watermark with information discussed during the 2020 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) March 8-11.

CROI provides a forum for HIV and virologist experts to discuss investigations into the epidemiology and biology of human retroviruses and associated diseases. OIC shared a number of the conference’s key takeaways, including:

● A successful response will require everyone’s involvement in controlling the spread. We must take care of our hands and practice social distancing. The latter should not be confused with a “panic response,” but it is a necessary and effective way to combat the spread of this infection.

● This is not just another flu. The virus is not even genetically related to it, and although both are respiratory illnesses, worse in the elderly, their similarities just about end there. The corrected mortality rate, although stratified by age and some chronic illnesses, is in the magnitude of 20 times greater than for influenza.

● COVID-19 is as contagious as it was initially reported.

● It was corroborated that most infected people will develop the illness, 80% mild, 15% moderate.

● There is minimal, if any, airborne transmission.

● There is a possibility of no long term immunity and there are reports of reinfections.

While COVID-19 has rapidly progressed since Dec. 2019, OIC Medical Director Dr. Edwin DeJesus advises that the U.S. government has failed to educate the public on its severity.

He notes that the U.S. fired its Pandemic Response Team in 2018 to cut costs, decreasing the budget for the CDC in the same period. Those decisions left the nation unprepared to properly take action.

“We are two months behind in the actions that needed to be taken against this pandemic,” he says. “Unless we individually take more charge of our actions to overcome the shortcomings of our public health policy, we will continue to be behind the eight-ball for the foreseeable future.”

To best combat COVID-19, WHO recommends the following protection measures:

● Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.

● Maintain at least a 3-foot distance between yourself and anyone coughing or sneezing.

● Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

● Make sure you and those around you follow good respiratory hygiene, covering your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of used tissues immediately.

● Stay home if you feel unwell.

● Keep up to date on the latest COVID-19 hotspots and if possible, avoid traveling to these places.

OIC recommends additional measures, including:

● Disinfect the property you carry frequently, including phones, keys, glasses and bags.

● Think of your immediate surrounding space as a part of yourself, keeping it as clean as you do your hands.

● Avoid greeting others with your hands or a kiss/hug.

● Avoid directly touching public surfaces that may potentially be contaminated with your hands and disinfect them when you do.

● Exercise social distancing.

● Increase your personal space when possible.

● Avoid crowds and large gatherings.

Like the LGBTQ and LGBTQ-inclusive events and spaces rescheduling or cancelling throughout Central Florida and Tampa Bay, DeJesus says it isn’t his intent to spread fear. “Facts and education are our best tools for success,” he says.

“There’s no need to panic,” DeJesus continues. “With good and frequent hand washing, by avoiding touching your face in public and with social distancing, we may kiss this epidemic goodbye.”

COVID-19 RESOURCES

Florida Department of Health

The Florida Department of Health works to protect, promote and improve the health of Floridians through integrated state, county and community efforts. Its COVID-19 Toolkit contains information on prevention, screening, distancing and more.

For frequently updated information, visit FloridaHealth.gov/COVID-19 or reach the COVID-19 Call Center 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121 or by emailing COVID-19@FLHealth.gov.

County Health Departments

County Health Departments are reinforcing public health and monitoring health trends on a daily basis. They help identify possible cases and serve as expert resources.

For information in Brevard County, visit Brevard.FloridaHealth.gov; Hillsborough County, Hillsborough.FloridaHealth.gov; Lake County; Lake.FloridaHealth.gov; Manatee County, Manatee.FloridaHealth.gov; Orange County, Orange.FloridaHealth.gov; Pasco County, Pasco.FloridaHealth.gov; Pinellas County, Pinellas.FloridaHealth.gov; Polk County, Polk.FloridaHealth.gov; Sarasota County, Sarasota.FloridaHealth.gov; Seminole County, Seminole.FloridaHealth.gov; Volusia County, Volusia.FloridaHealth.gov.

For information via phone in Orange County, call 407-723-5004; in Sarasota County, call 941-861-2873. In all other counties, 1-866-779-6121.

City Governments

City governments are working closely with the resources listed here and others. For Orlando, visit Orlando.gov/COVID-19; Tampa, TampaGov.net/COVID19;St. Petersburg, StPete.org/Emergency. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC is the leading U.S. public health institute and is closely monitoring COVID-19 throughout the nation. It provides community resources, information and more. Visit CDC.gov/Coronavirus for frequently updated information.

The World Health Organization

The WHO is a specialized agency of the U.N. concerned with public health and is closely monitoring COVID-19 conditions throughout the globe. It provides community resources, information and more. Visit WHO.Int/Coronavirus for frequently updated information.

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