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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 1,685 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, bringing Florida's total to 685,439 cases. The Florida Department of Health also reported 21 new coronavirus-related deaths, Sept. 21, increasing the statewide death toll to 13,480 fatalities.

Monday’s state data comes as the death toll from the virus nationally has now topped 200,000 fatalities.

Of the 5,120,391 COVID-19 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, the overall positivity rate has dropped slightly to 13.39%. The latest single-day positivity rate stands at 4.34%.

Overall testing rates in Florida remain on a decline with a daily average of about 24,000 tests so far this month. That's down from an average of about 32,000 daily tests in August and down from about 54,400 tests a day in July.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 145 new cases of the virus, Monday, for a total of 57,161 cases.

There was also one coronavirus related death reported Monday in Sarasota County, increasing the Southwest Florida region's death toll to 1,361 fatalities.

The Florida Cabinet meets this morning for the first time since May. Yet, topics like voting rights, unemployment, and an update on the coronavirus aren’t on the agenda. Cabinet member and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried requested those issues be added on but she says Governor Ron DeSantis decided to leave them off. So Fried hosted what she calls a ‘cupboard’ meeting Monday to discuss them.

For an update on the coronavirus pandemic, Fried brought former Department of Health scientist Rebekah Jones. Jones was fired for what she says was refusing to manipulate data. She now runs an independent tracking website.

“Cases are trending upward for every single age group in the state especially those who are under the age of 35. We’ve seen an astronomical increase in pediatric cases, we’ve seen additional pediatric deaths which the state has not been transparent about," said Jones.

Jones, on a video conference with reporters, says the number of COVID-19 cases in public schools across the state is likely higher than what’s been reported.

“We already know that there are more than 2,000 cases in schools, said Jones. "Schools only opened up three weeks ago and there are already 2,000 confirmed cases in schools and that’s only half the districts reporting in the state.”

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) tackled unemployment. The Miami Democrat says the legislature should reconvene to fix Florida’s unemployment system. It’s struggled to keep up with the demand for benefits amid the pandemic.

"The DeSantis administration has still not prioritized out of work Floridians and small businesses as well. The Governor has not used executive authority to fix the system," said Rodriguez. "He and Senate President and the Speaker of the House refuse to call us back as a legislature to fix the unemployment system."

The faulty system has led to delayed payments and rejections.

Fried herself also criticized DeSantis for not acting on clemency hearings. The Florida Cabinet is also the state’s clemency board. And it too hasn’t held many meetings.

"In the age of teleconferencing, there is no reason that your Florida cabinet and clemency board should not have met routinely throughout this pandemic. If it were a priority it would’ve happened," said Fried.

Usually, the state clemency board meets once every quarter. So far in 2020, they’ve met once.

The Miami-Dade County School Board is considering a plan to bring teachers and students back to school buildings as soon as next week.

If the board approves the proposal, students whose families choose in-person schooling would return in phases from Sept. 30 through October 7. The youngest students and those with disabilities would come back first.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho presented the reopening timeline during a virtual board meeting on Monday.

“Our plan relies on science. Our plan relies on the advice of public health and medical experts,” said Carvalho. “Our plan relies on the dynamic monitoring of local health conditions.”

Most of the district’s “gating criteria” for reopening schools have been met. Those are health conditions that would be necessary to open schools safely, based on the recommendations of the district’s medical advisory group.

The school board has not yet voted on the plan. Community members submitted more than 18 hours of public testimony via voicemail. The board hasn’t decided yet whether to hear only some of the comments or to schedule another meeting to accommodate the testimony.

Gov. DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran insist that the state's schools will remain open, even if COVID-19 infections start spiking. Leon Schools Superintendent challenger Pam Hightower said in that case, she'd be willing to defy state officials.

"As the superintendent, we're responsible for the persons in our district and I'd do what is best for the students and the families of Leon County along with the guidelines of the CDC,” said Hightower.

“If it gets up high, rather than looking at a surgical port and we have to retreat back to home, then that's what we'd do in order to ensure that our families, our students and the citizens of this district are safe."

However, incumbent Superintendent Rocky Hanna insists he'd have no choice but to keep at least some schools open in that case.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is urging those struggling with opioid abuse to seek help. She said the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic could make battling addiction even harder.

“Ending the opioid crisis is a daunting task and it has been exacerbated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Moody.

The state launched the website doseofrealityfl.com a year ago as a landing page for information about how to get help fighting opioid abuse. Since then, Moody says it's been updated with tips on topics ranging from how to properly store opioids to where to find drug take-back locations. Moody also encourages anyone who is considering turning to drug use to call 2-1-1 for help.

The Cruise Lines International Association is sending a proposed safety plan to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlining possible new protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The AP reports, the plan calls on cruise lines to test all passengers and crew members for the virus prior to boarding. It also requires people to wear masks onboard and while on shore excursions when physical distancing isn't possible.

The CDC's current no-sail order for U.S. waters extends until Sept. 30. The CDC will now consider the proposed safety plan and whether to lift the no-sail order.

Fort Lauderdale city employees returned all together to their offices for the first time Monday. They were greeted with a new piece of jewelry: bracelet thermometers.

The bracelets take an employee’s temperature every 15 minutes, and respond with either a green, yellow or red light.

In a welcome video message to employees, City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said, “That way we have some ability to know when people should be able to stay in the workplace and when we might need to take some precautions and get people out of the workplace so that they can seek other medical attention."

The city ordered 3,000 of the bracelets. They will be distributed over the next few days.

Previously, Fort Lauderdale employees had been alternating between working remotely and days spent at their offices.

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Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.
Caitie Switalski