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The Tropicana Field drive-thru testing site reached capacity just an hour after opening. Screenshot via Bay News 9

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Testing capacity lags in Tampa Bay, even as coronavirus numbers continue to boom

Numbers are down, but so is testing.

More than 60% of all COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have been added in the last two weeks, according to Florida Department of Health data. With cases on the rise, testing has fallen off, suggesting that as staggering as those numbers are, the problem could be more pervasive than the date already shows.

Since June 17, Hillsborough County has reported 7,226 cases, a staggering 63% of all cases since the virus showed up in March.

In that same time, Pinellas County added 4,176 cases, 61% of its entire caseload.

The past two weeks have seen a drastic uptick in new cases. Pinellas County reported 142 new cases on June 17, considered a high number at that time. By June 26, the county reported 608 new daily cases, the current record.

It’s worse in Hillsborough where just 221 cases were reported two weeks ago, again, a number that was high at the time, and then a staggering 1,107 cases on June 26th.

The numbers have dropped some since then. On Tuesday, Hillsborough reported 707 new cases, down from its previous high, but up from a weekend dip. Returning just 425 positive tests Sunday and 412 Saturday.

Pinellas reported 384 new cases Tuesday, again down from its record, but up significantly from weekend lows.

Worse, the numbers in recent days, which show historic highs overall but decreases compared to last week, might not represent the entirety the pandemics rapid resurgence.

Hillsborough County’s Tuesday positivity rate, the share of tests coming back positive for the first time, was 18%. Health officials worry about anything above 10%.

But the number of tests returned overall is dropping. Tuesday showed a total of 3,224 tests returned, up from just 1,952 Monday, but down from Hillsborough’s peak last Friday of 5,333 tests returned. What’s more astonishing is, the county’s positivity rate Tuesday was higher than its record setting day, which was 17.2%.

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The similar is true in Pinellas County where Tuesday’s positivity rate was a high 16%, but of only 2,013 tests returned. At its peak, 3,957 tests were returned on a single day with a 13.3% positivity rate.

That means in both counties, had testing been as prevalent as it was just days ago, Tuesday’s totals would have been, statistically speaking, higher than each county’s previous record-breaking days.

What’s not shown in the data is whether the drop in testing is a result of  supply or demand. Reports from public testing sites suggest its the former, not the latter.

Hillsborough County has four public testing sites available. The earliest date available for testing as of Tuesday, July 1 at 11:30 a.m. is July 15th at the Raymond James Stadium location. All of the other three sites don’t have availability until July 20th.

That schedule means people seeking a test now, can’t get one until after the virus’ two-week incubation period.

Pinellas County opened a larger testing site Monday at Tropicana Field to replace the location previously in the Carillon business district after increased demand caused traffic problems. The new site reached capacity,  just 350 for the day, by 8 a.m.,  just hour after opening.

The County’s public testing, through the Community Health Centers of Pinellas County, has a call-in line and website to request a test referral. A request made Friday by this reporter for a testing appointment had not been responded to as of noon Wednesday. A confirmation email sent Friday afternoon said a response would be given within his 72-hours, but that timeframe has been exceeded even if it’s considered business hours.

While the virus has been trending among lower populations — the median age is 34 in Hillsborough and 38 in Pinellas — people are still dying.

Pinellas reported 18 deaths since Sunday, bringing its total to 172. Hillsborough added five deaths since Sunday for a total of 140.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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