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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 2,590 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday, bringing Florida's total to 690,499 cases. The Florida Department of Health also reported 203 new coronavirus-related deaths, Sept. 23, increasing the statewide death toll to 13,782 fatalities. Wednesday's reported number of deaths is the highest it's been in nearly two weeks.

Of the 5,163,125 COVID-19 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, the overall positivity rate stands at 13.37%. The latest single-day positivity rate, however, stands at 5.28%.

In the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 241 new cases of the virus, Wednesday, for a total of 57,493 cases.

There were also 14 new coronavirus-related deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region, Sept. 23, including four new fatalities each in Lee and Manatee Counties, and three new deaths each in Collier and Sarasota Counties for a total of 1,380 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Florida continues to suffer economically because of the coronavirus pandemic AND Congress has stalled on passing a new relief package.

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) represents District 27 in Miami-Dade County. During a call with media Wednesday, she said state and local economies that rely on tourism will need more federal aid to get by.

“All of these areas are dependent on visitors and on crowds and they’re not going to come back until our community is safe and until we have made the investments to really contain the virus,” said Rep. Shalala.

This week Florida’s incoming House Speaker warned of “significant cuts to the budget” to deal with the financial losses caused by the pandemic. Florida economists say the state faces a $5.4 billion budget deficit over the next two years.

Florida Policy Institute CEO Sadaf Knight, says Congress needs to pass a new federal COVID-19 relief package soon.

“We also need additional flexible federal aid for state and local governments. Without it, Florida faces harmful budget cuts to critical public services like health care and education,” said Knight.

The CARES Act allocated more than $8 billion to Florida that was distributed between state and local governments to cover costs related to the coronavirus response.

This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested he’d like to see a special session for the Florida legislature to consider protecting small businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses Bill Herrle said he welcomes the idea of lawmakers visiting the issue sooner rather than later, saying businesses “urgently need reform.”

“They make decisions not just on a daily basis, but almost an hourly basis, in terms of what staff they deploy, how they direct their staff, how they recommended their staff self-quarantining and so forth,” Herrle said Wednesday. “Lots of decisions that are COVID-driven – there’s liability potential in all of those decisions. So, small business owners very much feel that someone has to have their back in that, and that has to be the state.”

Herrle says the potential for lawsuits aimed at businesses extends beyond those that might seem obvious on the surface.

“It’s not just the worst-case scenario of the lawsuit charging that someone contracted COVID at that place of business. It’s all those other decisions they make that can turn into workplace lawsuits,” he said, giving an example. “Whether you directed properly or improperly an employee to self-quarantine thus denying their ability to work. Is that some form of discrimination?

“We need to know that we can make prudent decisions to get the products and services to Floridians, and know the state has our back.”

The state legislature has a regularly-scheduled organizational session set for November. Saint Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes tweeted recently that he has a bill dealing with business protections “drafted and ready to file.”

Four families have filed a lawsuit against the Lee County School District over its mandatory mask policy for students while at school.
The News-Press reports, the lawsuit, filed Friday, argues that the district's mask policy violates the state constitution by denying parents' the ability to make decisions about their children's health. The suit also argues that the mask policy forces students who cannot wear a mask into a virtual learning model, which they say is separate and unequal to learning in a physical classroom.

Tampa-area attorney Patrick Leduc is representing local families in the lawsuit. Leduc is also representing families in similar legal challenges in Brevard and Hillsborough counties. He said the lawsuit could be resolved if the Lee County School district modifies its mask policy for students by making it a recommendation rather than a requirement.

According to the Collier County School District's COVID-19 dashboard, more than 60 students and staff members have tested positive for the virus since schools opened Aug. 31.

The dashboard includes information such as which schools the positive COVID-19 cases have been found in and whether confirmed cases are students or staff members. The Naples Daily News reports, the dashboard does not disclose how many people have been asked to quarantine for 14 days due to close contact with an infected person.

Close contact includes people who were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, or people who were within six feet of an infected person without a mask.

About 29,000 students returned to brick and mortar schools in Collier for the fall semester, while another 17,000 have opted for a virtual learning option.

Collier County Commissioners voted, Tuesday, to continue funneling federal coronavirus relief funds to resident needs and local businesses and to hold off on reimbursing local government entities for pandemic-related expenses.

The Naples Daily News reports, Collier County has received about $67 million from the CARES Act, which is being used for individual assistance like child care costs and help with making rent or mortgage payments. Collier officials have also provided grants for small businesses and help for nonprofits, health care and other community providers.

Collier Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said any federal aid funding left over after working to meet community needs could be allocated to local government entities like cities, fire districts and the county's tourism marketing arm.

Commissioners are slated to revisit the issue in November as the end of the calendar year is the deadline to doll out the federal relief dollars.

The online portal to submit applications for individual assistance will reopen Oct. 12.

The Palm Beach County School District has been unable to find nearly enough substitute teachers after a large number of full-time educators with the district have chosen to stay home as students returned to physical classrooms, Monday, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The AP reports, district officials say 944 teachers did not show up at schools on Monday and nearly 900 were absent on Tuesday. Meanwhile, less than 400 substitutes were brought in to make up the deficit.

The Palm Beach County school district had some 58,000 students at brick and mortal schools, Tuesday. Principals are having teachers supervise multiple classes at one time or sending other employees to monitor classrooms.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is telling vets anxious to get back to in-person services at local VA facilities to hang in there.

While many civilian health providers have resumed in-person visits, most VA hospitals and outpatient clinics in Florida are still limiting vets to come in for emergencies and certain essential appointments.

For example, Bay Pines VA in St. Petersburg is still not offering elective surgeries, and the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital’s outpatient clinics in the Tampa Bay region are only open for urgent referred appointments.

Higher coronavirus case rates in the state mean the reopening process has moved slower compared to VA facilities in some other parts of the country.

Secretary Wilkie told WUSF that changes could come soon if downward trends in cases continue. But he said the VA has to be cautious. VA patients tend to be older and have health issues, so they're especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Wilkie said he thinks scaling back routine in-person visits and elective surgeries during the pandemic has saved lives.

“But in response to that, we increased the availability of telehealth across the country and we can do things like dermatology and many medical services through telehealth, the most important of which is mental health,” he said.

Wilkie said in the Tampa area alone, virtual VA appointments increased by more than 3,400% this year.

Nationwide, Wilkie said there are about 2,600 active COVID-19 cases within the VA. The virus has infected thousands more veterans over the course of the year and has killed more than 3,100.

Wilkie is encouraging vets to contact their local VA hospitals and monitor their websites to learn more about what services they’re offering and coronavirus safety precautions in place.

Anyone experiencing distress can also contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

This Saturday's football game between the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University has been postponed. USF paused all on-field activities, Wednesday, after seven players at the University of Notre Dame, which USF played this past Saturday, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Notre Dame has also postponed their Saturday game against Wake Forest.

USF conducted a review of the video from the Notre Dame game for the purpose of contract tracing before making the announcement. Members of the USF team were tested before the Notre Dame game and again Monday. All of those tests came back negative.

More testing of the entire team took place Wednesday.

USF and FAU are working on potential dates for rescheduling the game.

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