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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State Health officials reported a single-day spike of 245 coronavirus-related deaths, Tuesday, increasing the statewide death toll to 7,402 fatalities. Tuesday’s reported deaths marked the third highest single day number of fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 5,446 new cases of COVID-19, Aug. 4, increasing the statewide total to 497,330 cases.

Yesterday marked the tenth consecutive day the state has reported fewer than 10,000 cases in a day.

Of the 3,790,202 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, a cumulative 13.12% have been positive for the virus.

State health officials reported 586 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations, Tuesday for a total of 27,952 hospital patients since the pandemic began.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 334 new cases of COVID-19, Aug. 4 for a total of 44,671 cases.

There were also 24 new deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region yesterday including 12 new fatalities in Lee County, seven new deaths in Sarasota County and five new deaths in Collier County for a total of 885 deaths.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he is creating a special committee to look into how families can meet face to face with their loved ones at assisted living facilities.

The governor and First Lady Casey DeSantis held a roundtable discussion at ElderSource in Jacksonville Tuesday afternoon, alongside state health officials.

The group was also joined by Mary Daniel, a Jacksonville woman who recently made national headlines for taking a job as a dishwasher at the assisted living facility where her husband lived so she could see him in person.

The governor is appointing Daniel to the special committee.

“I sit here representing hundreds of thousands of caregivers,” Daniel said. “It's not just me. I represent all of them, and we are desperate, and we are lonely, and we are hopeless and helpless. And I get to represent us with this great team of people here, and I am absolutely confident that we will come up with ideas.”

Families have been barred from visiting their loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living facilities since March, when a statewide mandate was put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the older, vulnerable population.

Although nursing homes offer ways for families to communicate with the loved ones, such as video calling through tablets, Daniel said that isn’t enough.

“They need a hug from us, not a picture of me on FaceTime. Not me at the window. They need us. And so, I like the small steps and I don't mean to disrespect them in any way, but I don't want anybody to be misunderstood about why I'm here,” she said.

Daniel said she has spoken to many families going through a similar situation, who are desperate to get back inside a long-term care facility.

“They are feeling a sense of urgency,” Daniel said. “They want to do it safely. They want to be like the staff, [where] they will be tested, they’ll wear PPE [personal protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves].”

Daniel also mentioned the “essential caregiver” rule used in Minnesota and Indiana since June. The rule allows family members who took care of their loved ones at the long-term care facilities at least twice a week prior to the pandemic to once again enter the facilities at scheduled times.

“You're not around any other residents,” Daniel said. “It's one-on-one time. It's working very well in these two states. In 14 other states, they're doing outdoor visits so that you are taking the patient outside the residence. So, you're not worrying about infecting the building.”

DeSantis said he understands the current restrictions come at an emotional cost.

“We've had residents of long-term care facilities that have passed away for things other than coronavirus, of course. This is a part of life, but throughout the last four and a half months, they have not had the ability to have family members visiting them. They've not had that type of human contact, which really, really makes a difference to people who are in those conditions,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis said he would be willing to loosen restrictions for people who have COVID-19 antibodies, meaning they had previously had the virus and their body had launched a defensive attack.

The governor said there are new point-of-care tests coming to the state that can deliver results within 30 minutes, but he doesn’t know how many will actually get to assisted living facilities. Other tests with longer turnarounds won’t be helpful when going to a facility.

“To do a lab-based test for a family member, you're not going to get the results back soon enough for it to really matter, so the point-of-care [test] gives a good window,” DeSantis said.

The special state committee, which includes Secretary of the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration Mary Mayhew, will solicit feedback from families and come up with proposals to give to the state. There was no timeline set.

“We’re going to be moving immediately. Now, obviously, it's going to take a little time to tee up some action items, but I think we do have an action item teed up with the antibodies,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also mentioned that all staff at assisted living facilities have been getting tested bi-weekly since June, when a state mandate was put in place.

Asked if the employee testing will be increased alongside the spike in cases statewide in recent weeks, DeSantis said he’s satisfied with the current requirement.

“I think at the end of the day when you have over 200,000 [employees], just the logistics involved with testing that many people across 4,000 facilities is very difficult,” DeSantis said. “And so, I think that it's a good screening device. I think it has been effective. We've been able to identify staff, isolate staff and prevent it from spreading for the residents.”

The latest data from the state show there have been 64 COVID-19 deaths in Duval County long-term care, and 3,155 deaths statewide as of August 2.

Lee County is set to provide more federal CARES Act funding for residents and businesses struggling financially amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The News-Press reports, the first round of the LeeCARES program that began in May has provided $11 million to Lee County residents who've gotten behind on housing and utility payments. That program ends Friday and will be replaced by a program that expands eligibility requirements.

The maximum assistance amount for Lee residents will increase from $2,000 to $3,000 and eligibility will expand to up to 120% of the area median income.

The maximum scholarship allowed to cover child care costs will double.

Grants for businesses will range from $5,000 for hiring employees earning less than $15 per hour, to $8,000 for new hires earning more than $20 per hour.

Lee County has also set aside $2.3 million to provide free personal protective equipment including masks and sanitizer that will be distributed at sites like food pantries.

A staff member of Samoset Elementary School in Manatee County tested positive for COVID-19, Monday, on the first day educators returned to the school.

The Herald Tribune reports, Manatee teachers returned to the classroom, Monday, for two weeks of training before students are set to return August 17.

Staff were sent home after the coronavirus case was discovered so that portions of the school could be cleaned. The staff member who tested positive, along with six others who'd come into contact with the infected person, must quarantine for 14 days.

Clerk of Court offices in Manatee and Sarasota Counties are laying off a combined 78 workers due to a sharp decline in court fines and fees amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Herald Tribune reports, the staff cuts will have an immediate impact on civil court proceedings and the ability of the clerks' offices to respond to public requests. Essential services may be delayed such as protective injunctions for victims of domestic violence, among others.

The Sarasota Clerk of Courts Office has lost $2.8 million in revenue from fine payments and filing fees since the pandemic began. The Sarasota Clerks office is cutting 52 of its 163 workers.

In Manatee County the pandemic has resulted in the loss of 52% of the Clerk of Courts' $6.1 million budget.

Palm Beach County’s Health Director says the most important indication that shows how much virus is in the community is trending down. Speaking at a virtual commission meeting Aug. 4, Dr. Alina Alonso said the trendline for the daily lab positivity rate has sat below the recommended 10% goal in the last 14 days and between eight and nine percent in the last few days. She says that’s a very positive sign.

“I really like the analogy of the Titanic,” said Dr. Alonso.

“We are not going to sink. We’re going to get through this. Our community is responding and following our lead.”

Dr. Alonso says parties and family events remain the reason for the spikes as she urges more educational public service announcements from the county.

Broward County Public Schools is considering a controversial pilot to reopen school buildings for in-person classes for some students with disabilities while all other students continue learning virtually.

Students with disabilities are among those who struggle the most under remote learning, since they’re not always able to get the specialized attention and therapies they need to thrive. In an effort to mitigate those negative effects, Superintendent Robert Runcie initially proposed allowing some students with special needs to return to campuses three days a week.

On Tuesday, Runcie announced he has scaled back that proposal as the COVID-19 pandemic rages in South Florida. Instead, he’s recommending a voluntary pilot program at a few schools. If that effort moves forward and is considered successful, it would be expanded to accommodate more students with disabilities for in-person classes.

The district has not yet finalized the details of how the pilot would work, including how many days per week students would be in schools. Runcie said the classes would start no sooner than Aug. 31. The planned first day of virtual learning for all students is Aug. 19.

The recommendation will be part of the district’s reopening plan, which has not yet been finalized. The school board will discuss it further during an Aug. 10 meeting.

“I have … directed staff to work on the possibility of establishing a pilot at a limited number of schools, if we can find staff and families of students with disabilities who are willing to participate,” Runcie said in a video message to the school board Tuesday morning.

"This pilot effort will allow us to better learn and understand the issues and challenges which may come up and how we can mitigate them,” he said. “From this effort, and hopefully with improved pandemic conditions, we will be able to consider expanding school-based instruction for these particular students with disabilities.”

Runcie said he formulated his plan with the input of “several dozen” special education teachers.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco denounced the proposal during Tuesday morning’s virtual school board meeting, arguing that students with disabilities are some of the district’s most medically vulnerable. Her union and others representing school administrators and employees are planning a press conference Wednesday to further discuss their opposition.

Fusco said teachers understand that students with disabilities need extra help they can get only at school.

“Nobody’s denying that they need it. Every child needs to be in a school setting, in a classroom setting,” she said during the meeting. “But no child should be put under some type of situation or condition that they might get deathly sick and die.”

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
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.