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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 3,571 new cases of COVID-19, Thursday increasing Florida's total to 637,013 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 149 new coronavirus-related deaths, yesterday, bringing the statewide death toll to 11,800 fatalities. The seven-day average for numbers of deaths reported in a day is 112. That number has not dropped below 100 reported deaths a day since July 16.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations reported by the health department has now risen to 39,428 patients since the beginning of the pandemic. That figure represents a total, and not the number of coronavirus patients currently in a Florida hospital. Those numbers have been on a positive downward trend.

Of the 4,724,739 COVID-19 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, the positivity rate stands at 13.48%.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties state health officials reported 181 new cases of the virus, Thursday, for a total of 53,860 cases.

There were also 9 new deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region, Sept. 3, including four new fatalities in Lee County, two new deaths in Manatee, and one new fatality each in Charlotte, Glades and Sarasota Counties, for a total 1,249 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Collier County Commissioners voted, Thursday, to extend a mandatory mask order imposed in late July, for another seven weeks. The order applies to many businesses and most other public buildings in unincorporated portions of Collier County.

It includes some exceptions including for restaurant patrons while they are eating, and for people working out in gyms while practicing social distancing among others. The ordinance also does not apply to children under nine years old and specifically excludes places of worship.

The 3-2 vote to extend the order was identical to the initial vote to adopt the mask ordinance with commissioners Donna Fiala and William McDaniel remaining opposed to the rule.

Despite often impassioned public comment from residents who mostly oppose the mask rule, Commissioners Andy Solis and Penny Taylor and Commission Chair Burt Saunders decided to heed the advice of medical experts, Collier County School District Superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton and the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce who all urged them to keep the mask mandate in place.

President of the Collier County Medical Society, Dr. Rebekah Bernard, was among the medical experts who spoke in favor of the order.

“Studies have shown that universal masking has declined the rates of COVID-19 positivity and that states that have enacted mask mandates have seen a decrease in COVID,” said Bernard.

“JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) just produced a study a few weeks ago that said there was an ethical justification for the mandate of face coverings to prevent the transmission of serious disease to the community.”

Bernard also addressed some misconceptions and fears about the harmful effects of wearing a mask.

“Here’s the truth everyone. Masks will not lower your oxygen levels. They will not raise your carbon dioxide levels. It’s just not a fact. They will not make you sicker because you are rebreathing your own germs. That is untrue and they will not weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to fight disease,” said Bernard.

Outbursts from the public caused delays throughout the more than four-hour long meeting, and became especially volatile just before commissioners voted.

At the beginning of Thursday's meeting, commissioners also voted to allow the county attorney to hire outside council to represent the three commissioners being sued by businessman and mask critic Alfie Oakes because they voted in favor of the mask mandate. Oakes is also suing the county, arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional.

Governor Ron DeSantis talked with local brewery owners Thursday in St. Petersburg about their business struggles due to the coronavirus pandemic, and their prospects for fully re-opening.

"We started out down 70-75 percent in the middle of all of this. We are down less than half now," said Mike Harting, who runs Three Daughters Brewing.

"That confidence is definitely coming back in the consumer," he said.

In late June, as coronavirus cases spiked, Florida's Business & Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears restricted bar sales of alcohol.

DeSantis said he expects to change that, soon, and that the order will come from the governor's office.

“I’ve told him I want every business in Florida operating. And we pretty much have 99 percent – you guys are kind of the last ones, everyone else is up and running," DeSantis said.

Some establishments have stayed alive by selling food, so patrons could also purchase alcohol and drink it on-site. But that workaround didn't fit every brewery owner.

"They have had it the roughest, there is no doubt about it," the governor said.

It's still unclear when or how the rules will change.

DeSantis said any restrictions lifted on bars will vary based on the rate of COVID-19 cases in each community.

The governor said he is still working out the details of how — and when — bars and breweries will be able to sell alcohol for customers to consume on-site.

Collier and Lee County School District officials announced, Thursday, that fans will be allowed at high school sporting events this fall, but in a limited capacity due to concerns about the ongoing pandemic.

The News Press reports, the Lee School district announced Thursday that high school football stadiums will operate at 25% capacity for regular season games beginning Sept. 17. Tickets will be pre-sold only.

Also Thursday, the Collier School district announced a policy allowing two fans per participating athlete to attend athletic events including volleyball games beginning next week and football games beginning Sept. 17.

Previously, Collier school officials had decided to bar spectators from sporting events this fall.

Private and charter schools in Southwest Florida begin playing games Friday. Four of the five schools hosting games will impose limits on fan capacity, while First Baptist Academy, which hosts Gateway Charter, has no plans to limit attendance.

Manatee County School District officials announced plans, Thursday, to launch a COVID-19 dashboard-style online data center to provide more details to the public about incidents of COVID-19 infections in individual schools in the district.

The Herald Tribune reports the dashboard will include numbers of confirmed cases of the virus at schools and support sites going back to the first day of classes, which was Aug. 17. The online tool is set to go live either this afternoon or next Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The dashboard will NOT include the numbers of people being required to self-quarantine after an exposure, but district officials say that information will be available upon request.

Earlier this week, more than 100 students at Palmetto High School were sent into a two-week self-isolation after being exposed at school.

First time jobless claims dropped by nearly 25% last week in Florida.

Still, Florida still had more new people filing for unemployment benefits than almost any other state.

The Department of Labor estimates close to 40,000 Floridians filed for unemployment for the first time last week.

That’s down from more than 50,000 the week before, but still more than in every state except California, New York, Texas and Georgia.

Florida’s unemployment rate jumped from 10.3% in June to 11.3% in July as more than one million Floridians find themselves out of work.

Since mid-March, Florida has received more than 3.8 million unemployment claims with the largest number of them from people in the food service and tourism industries.

Some nursing home administrators in Florida say they're struggling to meet the federal government's requirement to test staff weekly in hotspot areas for COVID-19.

They voiced concerns about government regulations, staff burnout and other challenges to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma during a meeting in Clearwater on Thursday.

Providers say demand for supplies is making it hard to test as frequently as they're supposed to.

A community’s positivity rate determines how often a nursing home in that area must test its staff. In hard hit areas like Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, facilities must do so twice a week, while facilities in the Tampa Bay area have to once a week.

The federal government is distributing rapid antigen testing machines to nursing homes and included an initial supply of test kits with each machine, but some facilities say that barely covered the first round of tests. Now they’re struggling to order more in time as supply chains are backed up nationally.

Anita Faulmann, a regional vice president for Consulate Health Care in the Tampa Bay area, said the frequency also places a burden on staff. She said even rapid tests that can be processed in about 15 to 20 minutes still take a lot of resources each week for facilities that have hundreds of workers.

"Cumulatively the amount of time to complete the testing takes away from our ability to actually react and be able to provide the appropriate care," she told Verma during the meeting hosted by BayCare Health System.

Verma said the government is trying to provide facilities funding and supplies to ensure they're capable of following the mandate, which is meant to help keep COVID-19 from making its way into homes, particularly through unsuspecting staff who don’t display symptoms.

"And we're going to continue to work through that, you know, there's going to be bumps in the road and maybe the standards need to be adjusted," she said.

Fines for not meeting the testing requirements can be as high as $8,000, and homes that repeatedly fail to comply risk losing their eligibility to participate in Medicare and Medicaid.

The coronavirus has killed nearly 4,900 residents and staff at long-term care facilities and infected more than 9,000.

But Emmett Reed, President of the Florida Health Care Association, said during Thursday’s meeting that right now 97 percent of nursing home residents and 98 percent of staff were COVID-free.

Faulmann ultimately credited frequent testing as one of the main reasons for that progress.

"Supportive" inspections

Providers said other regulatory measures are also posing challenges.

Nicole Francis, director at Orchard Ridge, a nursing home in New Port Richey that is operating a COVID-19 isolation unit, said repeat inspections from infection control regulators, while helpful, were taking up a lot of staff resources.

In an interview with Health News Florida after the discussion, Verma said the state and federal government have to keep doing inspections to protect patients. She cited as an example a facility that seemed to be following all the safety guidelines until inspectors saw staff eating lunch together.

"And so by doing those in-person visits we can help brainstorm with the nursing home about things that they may be doing inadvertently that are contributing to the spread,” she said.

Francis, who said infection control surveyors found no issues with her facility during their most recent visit, commended the agency for providing “supportive” inspections rather than “punitive,” suggesting her facility has not been penalized greatly for any errors that may have been found during previous visits. She asked that surveys continue in that manner.

But advocates for nursing home residents say the government isn't doing enough oversight and are calling for harsher punishment for facilities that fail to provide safe care.

Staffing shortages

Staffing was another issue raised during Thursday’s event. Nursing home leaders praised the hard work their employees are doing to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities, but said there just aren’t enough of them.

“We have people wanting to leave our industry now,” said Tricia Robinson, CEO of the Avante Group. The organization runs more than a dozen long-term care facilities in Florida, most of which are treating COVID-19 patients, which Robinson said require more intensive care. “When we have people out, let’s say ten have gone out sick, two of the ten aren’t returning to our industry,” she said.

Robinson said that is forcing facilities to turn to outside agencies to acquire more staff and hike up their pay rates.

“An average CNA wage was $12 an hour, right now we’re having to pay CNA’s, and that’s certified nursing assistants $25 to $35 an hour to come into our facilities. Nursing wages were on average $30 to $35 an hour for a nurse, we’re paying $50 to $70 an hour now, so it continues to be a struggle for us now to find the workforce.”

Robinson acknowledged staffing was an issue in nursing homes before the pandemic. Long-term care experts have said inadequate wages and the demands of the job are largely to blame for high turnover.

Administrator Verma pointed out the federal government has already allocated more than $10 billion for nursing homes to use for whatever their needs may be, whether staffing or supplies. But providers say more financial assistance is needed in the future as this pandemic continues to strain their budgets.

Fewer Floridians will be traveling this Labor Day weekend, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place across much of the country.

According to AAA Auto Club the vast majority of people who are still going on vacation during the unofficial last weekend of summer will be taking shorter trips by car and staying close to home.

Triple A spokesman W. D. Williams advises anyone planning to travel to research their destination, because all aspects of the tourism industry have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This year does require a little bit more travel planning than usual. There are states that have travel restrictions and quarantines in place, so you do need to check ahead,” said Williams.

For those driving this weekend, the average price of gas in the state is currently $2.20 per gallon, up $0.12 from one week ago, but down $0.25 from last year.

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.
Brendan Rivers comes to WJCT News with years of experience reporting and hosting news for several stations in the Daytona Beach area.
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 .