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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State Health officials reported another record, Wednesday, for coronavirus-related deaths with 216 new fatalities. July 29 marked the first time the Florida Department of Health has reported a single-day death toll exceeding 200 deaths.

So far this month, Florida has seen 2,783 reported deaths for a total of 6,457 fatalities. 2,836 of Florida's COVID-19 deaths, accounting for nearly 44% of Florida's overall death toll, have been among staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 9,446 new coronavirus cases, Wednesday, increasing the statewide total to 451,423 cases.

Wednesday marked the 36th consecutive day of daily increases of at least 5,000 cases.

Of the 3,531,721 tests that have been recorded in Florida so far, 12.78% have been positive for the virus.

State health officials reported 582 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations, Wednesday, for a total of 25,499 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, the Florida Department of Health reported 483 new COVID-19 cases, July 29, for a total of 41,394 cases.

There were also 24 new coronavirus-related deaths in the Southwest Florida region, Wednesday including 15 new fatalities in Manatee County, seven new deaths in Lee County and one new fatality each in Charlotte and Sarasota Counties for a total of 810 deaths.

Tropical Storm Isaias is nearing the Dominican Republic this morning with heavy rain and gusty winds, and is forecast to slowly strengthen after it passes the island.

A shift in the forecast track has occurred and it has significant implications for Florida this weekend

Gov. Ron DeSantis said it’s a reminder to Floridians to have their hurricane plans together.

“They need to secure seven days of supplies, food, water and medicine, just like you’re told to do at the beginning of every hurricane season,” said DeSantis.

“Listen to your local officials, and go visit http://www.floridadisaster.org/getaplanfor more information on how to prepare.”

This year’s hurricane season has already produced several tropical storms and a hurricane.

Dozens of coronavirus testing sites across Florida are closing because of the severe weather forecast this weekend.

During a media briefing, Wednesday, Chair of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers Mike Jachles said state-run COVID-19 testing sites have to be secured.

“These sites are outdoors. There are many objects that can fly around,” said Jachles.

“So, for the safety of not only our workers but the clients, and to secure the property that’s there, crews will begin striking the test sites in anticipation of the weather.”

The affected testing sites are open July 30 until 5:00 p.m. They will reopen by next Wednesday, Aug. 8 at the latest, or sooner depending on the weather.

COVID-19 testing could be available at other places indoors. People can check with their county health departments. State-run testing sites impacted by the impending closures in Southwest Florida are as follows:

Charlotte County:

Walk Up Testing Site

Publix at Port Charlotte Crossing4265 Tamiami TrailPort Charlotte, FL 33980

  • Hours of Operation: open 7 days a week 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Testing Criteria: Ages 18 and older, regardless of symptoms

Lee County:

Drive-Thru Testing Site

CenturyLink Sports Complex

4100 Ben C. Pratt/ Six-Mile Cypress Parkway

Fort Myers, FL 33912

Days of operation: Mon. - Sun.

Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Individuals over the age of 18 can be tested regardless of symptoms

Manatee County:

Walk Up Testing Site
Lincoln Park501 17th Street EPalmetto, FL 34221

  • Hours of Operation: 7 days a week 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • Testing Criteria: All ages, regardless of symptoms

Home Depot
2350 Cortez RoadBradenton, FL 34207

  • Hours of Operation: 7 days a week 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Testing Criteria: Ages 18 and older, regardless of symptoms

Sarasota County:
Walk Up Testing Site
Robert L. Taylor Community Center1845 34th St.Sarasota, FL 34234

  • Hours of Operation: 7 days a week9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Testing Criteria: All ages, regardless of symptoms

Drive-Thru Testing SiteUniversity Town Center299 University Town Center DriveSarasota, FL 34234

  • Days of operation: Mon. - Sun.
  • Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Individuals over the age of 18 can be tested regardless of symptoms

Gov. DeSantis said, he’d send his children back to school, if they were old enough to attend. The governor’s comments came Wednesday as teachers and parents remain anxious about whether to send their kids back to class in the fall.

DeSantis said schools should offer choices in terms of in-person and online classes, and district’s need to be flexible with their start dates and their employees.

“Anybody who is in a vulnerable category has to have special accommodations made and that may mean some teachers need to teach remotely. I think we should give wide latitude on that,” said DeSantis.

“If there are teachers not comfortable doing that, we should just make do with what we have and get the folks back in the classroom who are comfortable being there.”

Many teachers have threatened to quit or take leave if they’re forced to teach in-person. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued guidelines for schools noting the rate of transmission for children under 10 remains low.

DeSantis’ comments come as school districts push back their start dates as they continue working out safety plans.

Hospital officials in Southwest Florida continue to report declines in the number of COVID-19 patients.

On Wednesday, staff at Lee Health's four acute care hospitals were treating 80 fewer coronavirus patients than they were one week ago and the NCH Healthcare System reported its lowest number of COVID-19 patients since the beginning of July.

Over the past two weeks, Lee Health has grown it's staffed operational capacity from 1,300 beds to 1,362 beds.

Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci attributes the current COVID-19 hospital patient decline to people embracing mask wearing and social distancing, but he cautions against complacency, which he says could result in another spike in COVID-19 cases and patients.

With the potential threat of Tropical Storm Isaias looming, NCH President and CEO Paul Hiltz said people should take the pandemic into account by adding items like hand sanitizer to their storm preparation kits.

The head of a congressional coronavirus oversight panel is demanding documents from Gov. DeSantis and three other GOP governors showing how their states are working to combat spread of the virus.

The AP reports, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, also sent letters demanding documents to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee's demand for the documents comes just days after White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx went to Nashville to implore leaders there to close bars and residents to wear masks.

Governors in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee have until August 12 to respond.

The economic strain created by the coronavirus pandemic is being felt acutely in Florida's housing market.

Sudden unemployment has translated into many people being unable to pay their rent or mortgage, said Camilo Parra, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association.

Since March, Florida has had a ban on evictions, and Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he is considering extending a moratorium beyond Saturday's deadline.

But even with protections, Parra said he's still seen hundreds of evictions filed in Central Florida.

“It's tough to say what's going to happen when all of this expires because everything is not functioning exactly as we expected even during all these moratoriums being put in place,” he said.

Parra was a guest on The State We're In - a Facebook Live show from WUSF in Tampa and WMFE in Orlando. He was joined by Jay Mobley, a fellow attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

Mobley said he expects Florida to revert back to laws that were in place before the pandemic triggered widespread unemployment.

“And unfortunately they don't make exceptions for COVID, for job loss, for anything. It would take an act of the legislature to change the laws and then the governor would have to sign it,” Mobley said.

Florida's existing laws regarding evictions provides tenants just five days to pay all outstanding costs if they want to respond to or defend against an eviction. Mobley said it's called a "Pay-to-Play" law.

Both Mobley and Parra said they're concerned about the wave of eviction cases that could take over the courts if protections arean't continued. Parra said Florida's increasingly tight affordable housing market was making it harder for a lot of people to pay the rent.

Since the pandemic hit Florida in March, Parra said he has seen some bright spots, like landlords offering tenants options like setting up payment plans.

"We've seen some landlords do everything in the book and outside the book that you can imagine to try and evict people during these times,” Parra said. “We've seen just as many landlords do the opposite."

To see their full conversation, visit The State We're In Facebook page.

This story is produced in partnership with America Amplified, an initiative using community engagement to inform local journalism. It is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nearly 600,000 electrical customers in Florida are behind in monthly payments since the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on the economy in March.

While the overall number of those overdue has improved from the initial peak in April, officials from the various power companies in Florida told members of the Florida Public Service Commission, Wednesday, that the challenge remains in getting in touch with many of the late-paying customers.

Commissioners are trying to establish a collection method for customers impacted by the pandemic.

Vice President of Customer Service at Florida Power & Light Christopher Chapel said the utility currently has more than 350,000 delinquent accounts that collectively owe more than $100 million.

““I am fearful that their balances will get out of hand, and by the time they do call us, that conversation won’t matter anyway,” said Chapel.

“What will be presented to them will be unaffordable, and we need to figure that out.”

Some of the costs will eventually be written off, but the bulk of the unpaid bills could fall on all other customers for payment.

The Florida Office of Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers, cautioned regulators against using customers to insure a utility’s profit.

Over the past few months, most power companies have waived late fees, halted disconnections, and offered long term payment plans for customers to make up the overdue costs.

Health News Florida has learned that Florida has a new Long-Term Care Ombudsman, a position that has been vacant for almost a year.

The state appointed longtime Department of Elder Affairs employee Michael Phillips to become the chief advocate for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.

He takes over about 10 months after the former ombudsman abruptly resigned, leaving Florida without someone solely dedicated to the role during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly half of the deaths in Florida related to COVID-19 are tied to long-term care facilities.

Carol Carr, director of the department's Division of Internal and External Affairs, which oversees the ombudsman program, had taken over responsibilities in the interim as she continued to manage the division.

But elder care advocates said residents needed a watchdog solely focused on their needs.

"Florida is beyond a 'hotspot,' it's burning in flames, and these nursing homes and assisted living facilities need assistance STAT," said Brian Lee, a former ombudsman who now directs the advocacy group Families for Better Care.

He recently complained about the ombudsman situation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which told him this week about Phillips' appointment.

“I think it's about time,” Lee said. “I think it's a top-notch hire, he's an outstanding advocate for residents, he's had a great familiarity with the ombudsman program, he's worked in it for 14 years.”

Phillips is currently serving as Regional Manager for the North Region of the program.

As state leader, he'll direct a program that is mostly made up of volunteers who investigate complaints about long-term care facilities and work with residents and families to improve care.

Like most visitors, these volunteer ombudsmen have had restricted in-person access to nursing homes and assisted living facilities since the pandemic began and have had to handle inspections virtually.

"I think they're still trying to do something to help residents and make sure they're safe and protected, but it's really tough right now when you can't be in the building," Lee said.

Lee said he hopes Phillips listens to residents who have been isolated by the coronavirus and that he works closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis to improve his efforts to curb the spread.

He said he also hopes Phillips will echo advocates' calls to provide nursing homes with rapid molecular testing machines, which health experts consider to be more accurate than the rapid antigen tests the federal government is deploying. DeSantis recently said he's considering reopening facilities for visitation with the help of rapid tests.

"It's all about the right kind of test, and the right test is molecular rapid testing machines," Lee said. "So hopefully they get the rapid testing figured out, so that the residents can be safe, the caregivers can be safe, and we can get the families, the visitors and maybe even the ombudsmen back into these buildings by getting them tested on-site quickly and safely."

The Department of Elder Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

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.
Mary Shedden
Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF Public Media, where she oversees a team of reporters covering 13 counties on Florida’s west coast.
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.
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.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.