Florida’s recovery from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is slowing down, and Tampa Bay finds itself at a near complete stop. This pause in what had been a steady descent from the outbreak’s peak could spell trouble, especially for Pinellas, where the disease has already taken an outsized toll on elderly residents.

Statewide, the COVID-19 peak was in mid-July. Yet while the number of new cases each day has dropped steadily, that decline has begun to level out since the beginning of September. Mirroring that slowdown is the tally of those diagnosed with COVID-19 in hospitals. And lagging further behind is the state’s death toll, which has dropped less sharply since early August.

For the pandemic to end, those stats need to get to zero — and stay there.

But of late, the numbers are hardly budging in Tampa Bay, indicating that the virus isn’t leaving anytime soon.

Pinellas is the first of Florida’s large counties to see the flattening of new cases and current COVID-19 hospitalizations after both stats had been declining for nearly two months. During the third week of August, there were about 191 people primarily diagnosed with the disease in Pinellas hospitals at any given time. Nine days later, that was down 30 percent, to 134 people. But in the nine days since then (as of Wednesday), it is essentially unchanged, stranded at 133. (All of these numbers are according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration and are week-long averages, to smooth out day-to-day quirks.)

To be clear, we have no idea how long any of those patients have been in the hospital — some may have been admitted weeks ago and are not indicative of new infections. But generally, there is a natural cycle in the hospital population. New patients get admitted, a number of patients recover, and some (about a third of hospitalized cases in Pinellas since the beginning of the pandemic) die.

The number of new cases, which had also been falling, evened out at the same time the hospitalization count did. The last week in August had 451 reported cases. The week ending Sept. 9 had 508. The rise is not due to an increase in total testing; we know that because the county’s positive rate has inched upwards, meaning meaning the growth in cases outpaces the growth in total tests.

Those two changes in new cases and hospitalizations indicate that the number of people contracting the virus each day is no longer dropping in Pinellas, and neither is the number of people feeling symptoms.

Of all counties to see this improvement stop, Pinellas County is among the most worrisome. The coronavirus has killed patients in Florida’s sixth-largest county at a disproportionate rate. About 3.4 percent of Pinellas cases have been fatal, the highest rate in Florida’s 20 largest counties and double that of neighboring Hillsborough. (Case fatality rates depend on who gets tested — many people contract the virus without ever noticing.) An older population is likely the reason why. In general, older people are more likely to die from COVID-19. Pinellas’ median age is six years higher than Florida’s overall.

In most other large counties, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still dropping, although that decline is slowing down.

Hillsborough County looks like the next to stall. Wednesday marked the first day that Hillsborough’s current hospitalizations number worsened since July (using a weekly average to smooth out day-to-day quirks). The beginning of September also saw the first meaningful rise in new cases, although they’ve come down slightly in the past couple days. Hillsborough’s positive test rate has not yet increased like in Pinellas, however.

Overall, Hillsborough has likely seen more virus spread than its neighbor. But because it has a less vulnerable population, it’s experienced fewer serious outcomes. Adjusting for population, the larger, younger county of the two has had higher positive test rates and more cases — but fewer deaths and hospitalizations.

Pinellas and Hillsborough make up about one-ninth of Florida’s population. They won’t affect statewide numbers as much as South Florida will, but they’re large enough to cause concern.

And it would be worse news if the rest of the state follows suit. The steady improvement is slowing nearly everywhere. Florida is well past its peak and would have to dramatically reverse course to reach it again. But the downhill slope of constant recovery is no longer as steep as it was right after July’s peak, which only prolongs the pandemic.

This is a weekly series examining Florida’s coronavirus data. Send questions or suggestions to ltaylor@tampabay.com.

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