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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials report that Florida's overall number of coronavirus cases topped the 300,000-case threshold, Wednesday. Aside from Florida, only New York and California have reported more than 300,000 COVID-19 cases.

Florida reached milestone in cases just ten days after crossing the 200,000-case threshold. There were 10,181 new cases of the virus reported, July 15, for a total of 301,810 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 112 new coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday, increasing the statewide death toll to 4,626 fatalities. This comes one day after the state reported a record high of 132 deaths on Tuesday. The seven-day average for COVID-19 related deaths has grown to 90 fatalities a day, which is more than double the daily death average less than two weeks ago.

The total number of people hospitalized in Florida due to the virus has increased to 19,334 patients since the pandemic began.

Nearly 77% of all documented cases of COVID-19 in Florida were reported after phase two of Governor Ron DeSantis' reopening plan went into effect June 5.

Of the 2,739,169 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, more than 11% have been positive for the virus.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 651 new cases of the virus, Wednesday, for a total of 29,453 cases. There's been a total of 655 coronavirus-related deaths in Southwest Florida including three new deaths yesterday in Lee County, three new deaths in Collier and one new death each in Charlotte and Manatee Counties.

A recent Florida Department of Health report shows many labs in the state reporting 100% positivity rates for COVID-19 tests, meaning that every test they report is positive for the virus or that they’re simply not reporting negative test results, but NCH Healthcare System and Lee Health officials say that’s not the case.

The positivity rate of coronavirus tests conducted by Lee Health, Tuesday, stands at 28.1% and the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests conducted through NCH stands at 14%. Health officials reported those numbers during Wednesday’s media briefing for the first time, in response to public concerns over allegedly erroneous positivity rates from various laboratories throughout the state.

“I want to assure you we have been accurately reporting both positive and negative results to the state and continue to do this on a daily basis,” said Lee Health Chief Operating Officer Dr. Scott Nygaard.

“We are currently working with the Florida Department of Health to resolve this discrepancy.”

Dr. Nygaard said the healthcare system’s positivity rate is likely higher than what other labs are seeing because hospitals, unlike other types of testing centers, are actively treating COVID-19 patients.

Nygaard said Lee Health’s acute care hospitals are currently treating 300 COVID-19 patients after discharging 38 patients the day before and admitting another 32 new coronavirus patients. 91% of Lee Health’s current ICU bed capacity is full and 41% of their ventilators are in use.

Meanwhile, NCH CEO Paul Hiltz reports that 90% of adult hospital bed capacity is full and that 75% of critical care beds are full as well. NCH is currently treating 144 patients who’ve tested positive for the virus. Of NCH’s 153 ventilators, Hiltz said just 14 are currently in use, including ten COVID-19 patients on a vent.

On Tuesday, NCH spokeswoman Amanda Lucey said the healthcare system has seen a 115% increase in hospitalizations in the past two weeks and that if current trends continue, NCH hospitals will reach capacity in four weeks. Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci said Tuesday, that without expanded bed capacity and staff, Lee Health will hit capacity by August 1, which is why both healthcare systems are taking steps to hire new staff or bring back seasonal staff earlier than normal.

Collier County School District officials, on Wednesday, announced details of their plans for reopening schools next month.

The Naples Daily News reports, the districts’ plan calls for four instruction models available to families including in-person on-campus learning, virtual learning through the eCollier Academy on either a set schedule like a regular school day or on a flexible schedule that lets students work at their own pace, or homeschooling.

The Collier School District is also planning to provide laptops to first through 12th-grade students and iPads for kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners.

Collier Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton said the district's plans will remain fluid. The district is also sending out questionnaires about education preferences to families and asking that they be returned by July 22, so the district can better prepare to open schools on August 19.

Coronavirus testing labs that are not able to quickly get results back may soon lose business from the state of Florida. During a news conference in Tallahassee, Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis said labs contracting with state drive-thru testing sites are supposed to be turning around results within 48 to 72 hours.

However, many people are not finding out whether they are positive or negative for COVID-19 for seven to ten days.

DeSantis said the extended wait time for results is ineffective and makes it hard for people to know whether to self-quarantine.

“The Department of Emergency Management is going to shift business away from labs who have failed to produce results in a timely fashion,” said DeSantis.

“If you have somebody go through one of the sights, and then they get a result back ten days later, that is not really going to be very helpful.”

DeSantis also said that, starting Friday, select drive-up testing sites in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Duval counties will begin setting up lanes specifically for residents who are symptomatic.

Results of a recent survey indicate Southwest Florida's economy is improving even amid the current surge in new cases of COVID-19. The coronavirus economic impact survey conducted by Florida Gulf Coast University's Regional Economic Institute shows more businesses reporting an increase in consumer demand since May.

The News-Press reports, more than 80 executives in Charlotte, Collier and Lee Counties responded to the survey between June 28 and July 8.

Results show that 62% of respondents say they think the negative impacts of the pandemic will be temporary, 23% say sales have been increasing over the past month, and 31% reported an increase in consumer demand.

The survey indicates small businesses with fewer than 25 employees are taking the biggest hit. 35% of such businesses who responded to the survey say they've seen a more than 50% reduction in demand compared to 19% of larger firms. Nearly 70% of small businesses also report a decline in sales revenue, compared to 64% of larger businesses.

Before the Palm Beach County school board can decide on how to re-open schools, the board has to consider advice from public health officials.

County Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso is on the superintendent's health task force. She recently stated her support for starting the school year via distance learning. Alonso was in the process of writing a recommendation letter to the county saying school campuses should remain closed amid the spike in cases of COVID-19.

School Board Chair Frank Barbieri said that’s when Alonso was silenced by State health officials in Tallahassee.

“She got a call from the Surgeon General for the State of Florida telling her to keep her mouth shut,” said Barbieri.

The Palm Beach County School Board heard public comment Wednesday night in a marathon meeting about the district’s reopening plans.

A bar owner in Wilton Manors is suing the city, Broward County and Gov. DeSantis over not being allowed to open during the pandemic.

Brian Abraham opened LIT just three days before the shutdown happened in March. His attorneys filed a lawsuit earlier this week, alleging the restrictions on bars violate Abraham’s rights under the Florida Constitution.

Abraham argues bars are being kept closed arbitrarily while restaurants and other businesses remain open throughout the state.

“"I can go to Disney World, drink alcohol, order food, run around, that's perfectly fine, but you as a bar owner aren't a responsible enough human being to put a plan together to keep away the Coronavirus. I think it's the most ridiculous thing ever,” said Abraham.

South Florida counties have been trying to crack down on businesses that draw crowds as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. In the lawsuit, Abraham seeks $5 million in damages and the ability for bars to reopen with guidelines.

With everybody focused on COVID-19, pediatricians worry parents may be losing sight of the risks posed by other infectious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella.

Childhood vaccinations in Miami-Dade County were down by almost half in March, April and May, compared with the same period last year. Pediatrician Dr. Judy Schaechter said that’s a concern even if students continue distance learning this fall.

“I also don't want them to infect their little siblings or their cousins, or the grandparents that then go to the cousin's house. So, this is a community issue, regardless of whether they're in school or not.”

Dr. Schaechter teaches at the University of Miami and also works with the Jackson Health System.

She said parents who worry about costs should ask their doctors about the Florida Vaccines for Children program. The program uses federal dollars to cover vaccination fees for low-income families.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.
Verónica Zaragovia
Caitie Switalski
Wilkine Brutus
Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .