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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 3,220 new cases of COVID-19, Wednesday, increasing Florida's total to 608,722 cases. The Florida Department of Health also reported 153 new coronavirus related deaths, Aug. 26, bringing the statewide death toll to 10,872 fatalities.

Wednesday marked the fourth consecutive day health officials reported fewer than 4,000 new cases of the virus in a day. The last time reported new cases were that low was June 16-19.

Of 4,499,640 COVID-19 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, the overall positivity rate remains 13.53%.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties state health officials reported 182 new cases of the virus, Wednesday, for a total of 51,918 cases.

There were also 13 new coronavirus-related deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region, Aug. 26, including four new fatalities each in Collier and Sarasota Counties, three new deaths in Lee County and two deaths in Manatee County for a total of 1,172 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Florida is applying to participate in a federal unemployment benefits program that could give out of work Floridians another $300 a week. The AP reports, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday, he's applying for Florida to participate in the Lost Wages Assistance Program created through an executive order signed by President Donald Trump.

People who lost their jobs and who are currently receiving at least $100 a week in benefits could be eligible for another $300 a week. The additional benefit would be retroactive to Aug. 1.

Despite Florida's phased economic reopening plan, the number of unemployment benefit applications being filed in Southwest Florida continues to grow and large employers continue to announce layoffs.

Florida’s unemployment rate increased to 11.3% in July, with the jobless ranks growing by 122,000 people.

The rate is up from an adjusted 10.3% unemployment mark in June and reflects more than one million jobless Floridians out of a labor force of nearly 10 million people, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lee County's unemployment rate in July grew to 10.7 % from 9.6% in June and compared to 3.4% in July of last year.

In Collier County the July unemployment rate increased to 10.4% from 9.4% in June and compared to 3.6% in July of 2019.

The Herald Tribune reports, unemployment in the Sarasota-Manatee region increased to 9.4% in July from a revised rate of 8.5% in June. Comparatively the unemployment rate for the Sarasota-Manatee region stood at 3.4% in July 2019.

Across the entire state, 3.7 million unemployment claims have been filed with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity since March 15. 1.9 million workers have received a total of $14.2 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits.

Florida Senate Democrats used July's employment report to again push for lawmakers to be called into a special session to address the economic situation facing Florida.

Southwest Florida has experienced a recent spike in children testing positive for COVID-19. With students in the Collier and Lee County school districts set to return to the classroom Aug. 31, the state department of health reported a combined 23 coronavirus infections in kids aged 10 and under in those counties this past Sunday and Monday.

The Naples Daily News reports 13 of the new cases were in Collier County and ten were in Lee. Five of those cases are infants.

The Florida Department of Health reports 98 children ten and under in Collier County and 99 kids 10 and under in Lee County have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 1.

On Monday, the state health department included data on positive cases reported in day care centers and schools from August 8-21, but the department has since stopped reporting infections associated with schools and day care centers, saying those previous reports were drafts that were inadvertently released.

Schools in Lee, Collier and Sarasota Counties are among those opening their doors to students, Monday. The Hillsborough County School Board is already planning on which scenarios could force a shutdown.

The big question is, what happens when someone tests positive for coronavirus?

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis said if 15% to 20% of students have to go into quarantine, a school may look at closing for a while to avoid a super-spreading event.

Davis also said the Department of Health is looking at the idea of "exposure,” which they say is being within six feet of a positive case for at least 15 minutes.

"The Department of Health and working with the Department of Education they really want us to be intentional with regard to who has had that exposure related to that proximity, so it could be where a particular side of the class could be quarantined, and another side of the class may not,” said Davis.

Davis promised full transparency, saying the county will publish a daily dashboard of COVID-19 cases in schools.

A task force established by Gov. DeSantis agreed, Wednesday, to allow face-to-face visitation in Florida nursing homes in the coming weeks.

Members of the Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long Term Care Facilities agreed to add emotional support to the list of activities of daily living that “essential caregivers” are allowed to provide to long term care residents who have been shut off from visitors for close to six months.

Without the inclusion of emotional support caregivers, only those who feed, bathe or clothe residents would be considered “essential” under the reopening recommendations.

The group also created the potential that certain visitors could touch or hug the residents they are visiting. Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees argued against the change, saying the risk of coronavirus infection remains high.“We really need to be sure that, unless it is essential to breach that six-foot barrier, we really need to keep this, said Rivkees. “Otherwise we are going to have individuals that are getting COVID.”

The change in definition came at the behest of panel member Mary Daniel, a Jacksonville resident whose husband has dementia. Daniel, founded the group Caregivers for Compromise. She said infections are already occurring now, and the months long visitation ban is causing harm.“I’m losing the very best time with him. Today is his best day. He will decline tomorrow and the day after and the day after,” said Daniel.

“I am missing the time right now that he knows me and that he knows my love and he can feel it. I am missing that. What am I saving him from?”

The recommendations will be submitted to Gov. DeSantis for consideration.

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Clermont, has lost another lawsuit challenging a mask ordinance. Gadsden County Circuit Judge David Frank wrote in a ruling filed Monday that, as a lawyer, Sabatini has filed the same claims in at least four other lawsuits. A judge in Leon County has also ruled against him.

Judge Frank asked “when is enough enough?” He advised Sabatini to consider that, at some point, he could be sanctioned for filing frivolous lawsuits.

Sabatini frequently minimizes the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter and attacks government mitigation efforts. Responding in a text, Sabatini said the judge’s advice misrepresents the law and is “close to being a personal political statement.” He said an appeal was filed on Wednesday.

Scammers may be taking advantage of the pandemic and storm season to get their hands on your money.

A listener wrote to us recently that she had been scammed by people posing as Florida Power & Light representatives. They asked for her bank account information and unfortunately, she gave it. FPL spokesperson Matt Eissey says this is nothing new.

“For several years, customers of all utilities—electric, water, cable, and FPL included—we’ve been victimized by scammers posing as FPL, trying to get a quick cash grab from our customers,” he said.

They may use caller ID that looks like they are calling from a legitimate company, he said.

“What I want our customers to understand is that FPL will never call threatening disconnection and demanding payment via prepaid card or wire transfer. And FPL will never ask for personal information from a customer unless they initiate the call,” said Eissey.

Eissey says that if there is a problem with non-payment of your bill, FPL will always send a final-notice letter through the mail.

If you receive a call that seems suspicious, hang up immediately. Call FPL at the number on the bottom of your bill, and call local law enforcement. You can also report your experience to the Florida Attorney General’s office at myfloridalegal.com. See FPL.com/protect for more information about how to protect yourself.

Gov. Ron DeSantis first ordered a stay on evictions to protect people from losing their homes during the coronavirus pandemic last April. It has since been extended, but experts say housing insecurity can impact physical and mental health.

Last week, as four of his kids played under a tree at a law office parking lot, Jose, a mechanic from Palmetto, was inside the building getting advice after his family had to leave their trailer home. His wife waited in the car with their 1-year-old baby. Jose, who didn't want to use his last name, is 38 and says until recently, he never had a problem paying his rent on time. But in June, he tested positive for the coronavirus, got sick and was unable to work.

"Being sick, I was behind on rent,” he said. “I gave him what I could, but come August 1st, the landlord cut off our water. We had no water in our trailer and from there we got our lights cut off."

With no electricity to the unit, Jose got some money from his mother so his family could spend a night in a motel.

“It's a trailer house, we're in Florida and it’s very hot,” he said. “I couldn't have my kids sleeping like that."

The next day, when Jose returned to the trailer, all of the family’s furniture had been removed.

Jose and his family were not formally evicted. There was no paperwork filed, the landlord simply made living conditions untenable.

“What the landlord did is sometimes referred to as a constructive eviction,” said Jeff Canup, an attorney with Gulf Coast Legal Services, which provides free legal aid to vulnerable people.

“By cutting off the water and power to the unit, and disposing of his furniture, the landlord just took it upon himself to create the conditions that effectively removed Jose from the unit.”

Canup says Jose can take the landlord to court, but that does little to help his family right now, and Jose says their sudden homelessness has been hard on everyone.

And he isn’t alone. According to estimates, millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes.

"It is astonishing and incredibly worrisome the level of suffering that we could see if conditions don't change and if the government doesn't act," said Sam Gilman of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a coalition of researchers, monitoring data on housing insecurity. “And it goes without saying that it’s not right or safe to evict people into a pandemic.”

Gilman says evictions have already started across areas of the country now that the federal eviction moratorium has ended. Even in Florida, with a moratorium still in place, the safety net is tenuous.

That's because when DeSantis extended the order in July, he also changed the rules.

Eviction lawsuits may now proceed through the courts. But if tenants can prove they can’t pay their rent because of the coronavirus, they can stay in their homes for now. Meanwhile, the rent that they owe continues to accumulate and tenants will eventually have to pay it.

More funding will be necessary if the tsunami of evictions that has been predicted does happen. For now, the DeSantis administration has pledged $250 million in CARES Act funding for rental and mortgage assistance for Florida families that have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fear of losing your home can be very scary, says Jacquelyn Flood, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

"Anytime there's a situation where you're not sure what's going to happen, its unpredictable, you feel like things are outside of your control, it’s going to be a really stressful situation,” Flood said. “Every emotion in the book might come at you, and the longer it goes on, the less hope people have through the process.”

Stress can cause amyriad of mental health issues like anxiety and depression but it also impacts the body. Physical symptoms include high blood pressure, headaches and chest pain.

"I think those physiological things are like our red flags," she said. “Those are the things that are telling us that your system is not regulated and it’s not doing well. You have to make sure that your own body is able to function because you're not going to make it through if you don't take care of yourself."

According to datafrom the U.S Census Bureau, 51% of Floridians have lost income due to COVID-19 and 31% said they had little or no confidence that they would be able to pay their next rent or mortgage payment.

Kathleen Cramer is the executive director of Turning Points, a Manatee County nonprofit, which provides housing assistance to homeless people and those with housing and related health issues.

"When someone is put on furlough, when someone loses their job and they're not used to accessing service from the government, they're not going to their doctor because they know they don't have medical insurance," she said.

The agency does have a full service medical and dental clinic and she says whether at Turning Points or elsewhere, people should know that there are places that offer no- or low-cost health services.

"It is a misnomer that we only serve the homeless,” said Cramer. “Individuals can come in if they've had a loss of income, even if it’s just to fill the gap. Especially for those folks who have chronic illnesses and need regular medication. Do not put off your medical care."

As for Jose, he's recovered and back at work. But it will take time to bounce back after months without a paycheck. He says the past few months have been a struggle.

"It's not easy, he said. “Only me and my wife actually know the facts. It's hard to explain to the kids what's going on. So it's hard. COVID’s no joke."

Jose received a 14-day motel voucher through a grant from Turning Points. They’re also working to find permanent housing for the family.

In the meantime, not having a place to call home has taken a toll on everyone.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.
Joe Byrnes
Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.