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Jeff Brandes, Nick DiCeglie host tele-town hall to answer COVID-19 questions

Residents had questions about personal health, and wealth.

Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. Nick DiCeglie hosted a telephone town hall Thursday to give Pinellas County residents an opportunity to ask questions about COVID-19 and the impacts they are experiencing.

Two doctors, Jay Epstein, an anesthesiologist, and Julie Shamas, an emergency room physician, were also available to answer questions.

About a dozen residents weighed in during the one-hour call with questions ranging from when they could get back to work to whether a delivery worker could spread the new coronavirus through sweat.

Lana from Pinellas Park worried testing availability was keeping data from accurately portraying how badly the virus is affecting Pinellas County. She said her physician told her the office had tests but were unable to administer them because they lacked personal protective equipment (PPE) to do so.

Shamas acknowledged that testing remains a problem but expressed some optimism.

“It has gotten significantly easier to get a test. Not easy, but easier,” Shamas said.

She said most primary care doctors are not conducting tests. Most testing is happening at dedicated sites, which a physician could refer patients to.

Testing prioritization, she said, remains in place for those most severely ill, followed by those who have had direct contact with someone who has already tested positive.

BayCare is operating a coronavirus testing site in the Gateway district in mid-Pinellas from 9 a.m. until noon Monday through Friday at 900 Carillon Parkway, Suite 106.

BayCare is pre-screening patients for testing through an online portal available here.

Peter from Largo asked Brandes about small business loans. He worried that a $10,000 grant he applied for through the Small Business Administration website would only return $1,000, which wouldn’t be enough to get his company through these hard times.

Brandes referred to various programs, including pay protection grants through the federal CARES Act, which provides funds to small businesses to keep employees on the payroll.

Another question dealt with independent contractors who, under Florida’s current unemployment process, are not eligible for benefits.

He said whether that would change is “still an open-ended question.” Independent contractors, also known as 1099 workers, would still qualify for the $1,200 per person stimulus for all Americans who earn up to $75,000 and the $600 per week unemployment compensation available through the federal relief act.

Another caller worried about delivery or service workers whose work may require them to enter peoples’ homes. Shamas suggested individuals avoid having anyone enter their home unless it’s absolutely necessary. Now might not be the best time to have a new dishwasher installed, she said, but something like an air conditioning repair in Florida’s hot climate might be unavoidable.

In those situations, Shamas said residents should be careful to avoid contact with the worker and sanitize any spaces the worker touched while providing a service.

Other recommendations emerging from the call included self-quarantining for 14 days after a hospitalization, even if it was unrelated to the COVID-19 disease. The question came from a woman who was caring for her elderly mother who was just released from the hospital.

“We’re all taking care of patients who could have COVID or do have COVID,” Epstein said.

The safest thing to do, he said, is to stay home and avoid any outside contact to ensure individuals are not contributing to community spread.

Both doctors recommended wearing masks when making necessary trips outside of the home.

“When you wear a mask you’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting me and I would thank you for it,” Shamas said.

Epstein noted that masks, which are in short supply, need not be officially approved.

“Use any mask that you might have or might be able to fashion at home,” Epstein said.

Shamas also recommended individuals utilize telehealth options for preventative care that might have been scheduled pre-coronavirus. Most doctors’ offices are providing those services in lieu of office visits. In some cases, alternatives are also available for lab services.

Individuals should contact their personal health care provider for more information about specific options.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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