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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

Thursday marked another grim new milestone with the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida with state health officials reporting a single day record high of 173 deaths, increasing the statewide death toll to 5,518 fatalities.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 10,249 new cases of the virus, yesterday, for a total of 389,868 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Thursday marked the 30th consecutive day of at least 5,000 positive cases reported in a single day.

Of the 3,215,185 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, 12.13% have been positive for the virus. More than 328,000 cases, or 84% of Florida total caseload, has come since phase two of Gov. Ron DeSantis' reopening plan went into effect June 5.

During a media conference in Melbourne, Thursday, DeSantis downplayed the record-high single-day death toll, saying the data reported actually reflects deaths that occurred over various days. He also doubled down on his refusal to issue a statewide mandatory mask requirement, and again said the state will not be rolling back on its business reopening plan.

State health officials reported 401 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations, July 23, for a total of 22,644 hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 827 new cases of COVID-19, Thursday for a total of 37,368 cases. There were also an additional 6 new coronavirus-related deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region yesterday including three new fatalities in Manatee County, two new deaths in Lee County and one death in Sarasota County for a total of 739 deaths.

Gov. DeSantis is urging people across Florida to not delay getting procedures they need at hospitals.

“If you have other ailments, heart, stroke, don’t sit on that. Go in and seek the care that you need,” said DeSantis.

“They’re going to be able to take care of you, and they want to make sure that we can do it. In fact, I think that pretty much, universally when you talk to folks who are running hospitals, they’ve got beds, they’ve got equipment, PPE.”

However, in South Florida, some hospitals have temporarily stopped seeing patients for some non-emergency elective procedures that aren’t urgent because of the surge in COVID patients. So, people should check with their doctors first.

Hospitals, including Jackson, are also receiving more medical personnel like nurses. The state has sent temporary staff to hospitals and long-term care facilities that needed to replace their own.

Officials with the Lee Health and Naples Community Hospital healthcare systems both report a slight decrease Thursday in COVID-19 patient volumes. Lee Health’s four acute care hospitals are currently treating 296 COVID-19 positive patients, which is down from 310 patients Wednesday.

NCH hospitals are treating 111 COVID-19 patients, which is two fewer from the previous day. The positivity rate for tests performed through Lee Health’s labs stands went down from 28% the previous day to 23.8% and NCH’s positivity rate is up slightly to 15%.

During Thursday’s media briefing, Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci discussed ongoing efforts to expand staffing.

“We have a substantial effort underway to bring back seasonal staff early and welcome back employees who are on a leave of absence or a summer sabbatical,” said Dr. Antonucci.

“We have brought in traveling nurses and more are coming in the next two weeks. Since July 6, 57 additional RNs have started working in our hospitals and we have more critical staff starting work each week.”

Meanwhile, NCH spokeswoman Amanda Lucey took the opportunity to highlight the mandatory mask ordinance passed, Tuesday, by Collier County Commissioners.

“We feel strongly about the contribution masks have made in our exceptionally low rate of COVID transmission from patient to staff and most notably our zero-transmission rate from patient to patient,” said Lucey.

“As time goes on and more study results become available, masks have been proven effective in curbing the growth of COVID19 patients. Further there have been no harmful or adverse effects shown from the wearing of masks by the average person.”

58% of Lee Health’s ventilator capacity and 13% of ICU bed capacity are available. At NCH hospitals, 15% of adult inpatient beds and 25% of critical care beds are available with only about 10% of its ventilator supply in use.

Dr. Antonucci also addressed challenges in keeping up with the high volume in COVID-19 tests being needed. “We are asking to please hold off on calling to ask about COVID test results for at least 16 days after you’ve been tested,” said Antonucci.

“Understandably, these longer wait times may cause concern that tests have been lost, but I promise you this is a very rare occurrence.”

Antonucci said Lee Health will be sending some specimens out to commercial labs for testing to help address the high volume.

Congress is facing a deadline to extend unemployment benefits for people out of work due to the pandemic. Those payments have made a big impact in Florida.

Florida’s started 2020 with unemployment at near-record lows. Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Forecasting at the University of Central Florida, says it will take at least three years for the state’s economy to recover. He says additional unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program stopped a bad situation from becoming much worse.

“Hopefully whatever the final version of the second round looks like it's, it will be more streamlined and targeted to the people and the businesses that are most impacted by COVID-19,” he said.

Floridians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were able to collect an additional $600 per week from the federal government. But the state’s unemployment application system broke down due to the surge in new filings.

Plans for a four-day Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, next month, have been cancelled. The AP reports, President Donald Trump announced, Thursday, the convention has been scrapped due to Florida's current surge in COVID-19 patients.

Trump's formal renomination is still slated to go forward in North Carolina.

Lee County School board members voted, Thursday, to delay the scheduled return of students by three weeks to August 31.

The News-Press reports, Lee Schools superintendent Greg Atkins said he plans to require all students and employees to wear some form of face covering while on school grounds unless they have a medical reason for not wearing a mask, although that mandate would require a separate school board vote.

The delayed start date for students mean Lee County school district teachers won't return to the classroom until August 18. District officials say they won't go without paychecks because of the delay.

The delay also means parents now have until July 30 to inform the district of how their children will return to school. There are four options including in-person classroom learning, parent-led homeschooling, and two virtual learning options.

Those who do not respond to the district's survey will default to the in-person learning option.

An international relief organization was poised to help with the COVID-19 response in Immokalee but has halted those plans.

Global Response Management is an international nonprofit organization that specializes in providing medical care and humanitarian relief for people affected by conflict and disaster.

Last month, the group announced it was be working in Immokalee to help with the COVID-19 response.

However, a statement provided by Global Response Management this week said that after five weeks of working in Immokalee, the organization “decided to focus ongoing efforts in communities with no safety net behind them, like the asylum camp in Matamoros, Mexico.”

Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel, whose district includes the town of Immokalee, said via email that representatives from Global Response Management told him they did not have the “funding nor time prescribed by their board to proceed” with the Immokalee initiative.

A representative of the organization confirmed McDaniel’s statement.

It is unclear at this time if Global Response Management will return to Immokalee in the future.

Doctors and hospitals are continuing to use convalescent plasma to treat people with COVID-19. Convalescent plasma comes from donors who have recovered from the virus to give antibodies to people currently fighting the virus.

The treatment is still being investigated, but the FDA says results have been promising.

According to the blood center OneBlood, orders from hospitals for these transfusions are up more than 500% in Florida and the Southeastern U.S.

“Hospitals and doctors, they have limited options of what can be used to treat these patients. It has really moved to the forefront of being a treatment option and they're using it earlier to help these patients.,” said OneBlood spokeswoman Susan Forbes.

“It's important that people step forward to be this convalescent plasma donor."

Donors for convalescent plasma have to prove they had COVID-19 or that they have the antibodies. They also have to have been recovered for at least two weeks before donating.

Forbes would not disclose how much hospitals pay OneBlood in service fees for units of convalescent plasma, but she emphasized there's still a need for regular blood donors to continue to give as well.

"As businesses and schools and colleges and universities and movie theaters and all these places where you would traditionally see the big red bus for a blood drive; those places started to close,” said Forbes.

“People started doing remote work. Well, that's where we go to have blood drives."

OneBlood is taking blood and plasma donations by appointment during the pandemic.

The Trump administration says it will require nursing homes in coronavirus hotspots to test staff weekly. Florida currently tests staff every two weeks.

Director of the non-profit Families for Better Care, Brian Lee, said that's not enough. He's calling for rapid molecular testing machines in every home. Lee says if facilities had rapid testing it could open the door for families to visit again sooner.

“The rapid testing machines would bring these broken relationships back together fractured by COVID, and it would put the families back into the facilities to be advocates for their loved ones,” said Lee.

The federal government said it's sending every nursing home a rapid testing machine, but it's still unclear when those would arrive and how facilities would pay for continued testing after the first supply of kits runs out. The devices are also antigen testing machines, which are more likely to produce false negatives, so Lee says they're not accurate enough to allow safe visitation.

The U.S. Surgeon General is visiting Miami as coronavirus cases surge. Vice Admiral Jerome Adams spoke in Doral Thursday. He said masks are critical to get more businesses running again.

“This face covering is a really small gesture. It may seem like an inconvenience to you, but…If someone goes out to a restaurant and gets infected when they didn’t have to because we weren’t doing our part,” said Adams.

The U.S. Surgeon General announced a new effort. Federal and state officials are handing out one million masks to hotel and restaurant workers in Florida. Indoor dining rooms remain closed in Miami-Dade County.

Primary election day is Aug. 18, and it seems every county in the greater Tampa Bay region needs poll workers to help out. Sarasota County will need to employ about 1,300 people to deal with the general election on Nov. 3.

Elections Supervisor Ron Turner said he lost a number of poll workers early in the cycle. "Back in March, for the March presidential preference primary, about 30% of our poll worker positions were unfilled or poll workers dropped and decided not to work because of the virus," he said.

The average age of poll workers in his county is 69, and that makes them part of the group most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Turner said those interested in applying to be a poll worker should go to the website, SarasotaVotes.com.

Potential employees must be registered to vote in the county in which they are applying to become a poll worker.

However, Turner said Florida teenagers who are at least 16 are permitted to pre-register to vote and if they do, they are eligible to work at the polls. Turner said these are paid positions and the pay varies depending on the job responsibilities.

Pinellas County needs 1,500 poll workers and they have also heard from people who have worked the polls before, but are now not comfortable doing that because of the coronavirus.

Polk, Hernando, Pascoand Hillsborough County are all hiring poll workers this election season.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, studies are showing more people are now concerned about food safety. While the risk of contracting COVID-19 through food is very low, the Florida Department of Agriculture points to a recent survey that says 55% of consumers are worried about the safety of their food.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s agency oversees 40,000 food-related businesses across the state.

She said extra emphasis is being placed on making sure restaurants and other shops know proper protocols for food preparation, hand washing and kitchen cleanliness.

“When we saw the outbreak of COVID in our state, we did send out letters to all of the businesses that we regulate just to remind them that these are the types of regulations,” said Fried.

“This is the law, and a lot of these things are actually in statute.”

Fried said anyone with concerns about a restaurant’s food safety practices should contact the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s food safety division.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.
Verónica Zaragovia
Caitie Switalski
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Susan Giles Wantuck is our midday news host, and a producer and reporter for WUSF Public Media who focuses her storytelling on arts, culture and history.
Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.
Bradley George comes to WUSF from Atlanta, where he was a reporter, host, and editor at Georgia Public Broadcasting. While in Atlanta, he reported for NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and The Takeaway. His work has been recognized by PRNDI, the Georgia Associated Press, and the Atlanta Press Club. Prior to his time in Georgia, Bradley worked at public radio stations in Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.
Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.