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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health
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COVID-19 Cases, Deaths and Hospitalizations on the Rise in Florida

State health officials reported 7,711 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 1,065,785 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 106 new coronavirus-related deaths, yesterday, increasing the statewide death toll to 19,529 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past seven days, the single-day average number of new infections reported has increased to 9,331 cases a day. The average number of daily deaths reported over the past week has increased to more than 99 fatalities a day. In the past week, there have been three consecutive days that the number of new cases of the virus reported topped 10,000, which hasn't happened since July.

In early October the seven-day average number of new cases in Florida was about 2,200. Back in mid-July the seven-day average had increased to nearly 11,700 new infections a day.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, using the formula recommended by the World Health Organization, increased to 9.87% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks, the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 8.09% and 10.99%.

The number of patients being treated for COVID-19 in Florida hospitals is also on the rise. The News-Press reports, COVID-19-related hospitalizations have increased by about 24% in the past two weeks. Statewide, coronavirus-related hospitalization have increased about 20% over the past two weeks.

In Lee and Collier Counties, the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration reports there were 227 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is up from 183 patients on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Lee Health reported, Monday, that 149 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 80% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 20% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 5 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 19 COVID-19 positive patients in intensive care.

In Sarasota and Manatee Counties, the Herald Tribune reports COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise. On Monday, there were 139 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Sarasota; the most since July 30th. 66 patients were hospitalized in Manatee County, Dec. 7, which is the most since mid-August.

Epidemiologists Warn of Another Peak in COVID-19 Activity

As confirmed cases, deaths and hospitalizations due COVID-19 have been increasing in Florida over the past two months, the AP reports, some epidemiologists are sounding the alarm that COVID activity in the Sunshine State could soon match the peak levels reached this past summer.

After a three-month decline that began in July, Florida began to see reported case numbers begin to increase again in October, two weeks after Governor Ron DeSantis lifted all capacity restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses.

DeSantis also weakened local governments' ability to enforce COVID restrictions like mandatory mask policies, by barring cities and counties from collecting fines from those who fail to comply.

DeSantis says he thinks re-imposing COVID-19 restrictions would do more harm than good, and instead says he's encouraging people to wear masks and to physically distance.

Florida’s COVID-19 Vaccine Priorities

Residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida will be the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it starts to become available in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed the state's priorities for vaccine distribution during a video message released last week.

The AP reports, the second priority will be frontline healthcare workers. If there's enough left, Gov. DeSantis said he wants to make vaccines available for people 65 and older and for those with serious health conditions that put them in a higher risk demographic for complications from the virus.

DeSantis said he expects Florida will begin receiving vaccines later this month.

Law Enforcement Raids Home of Fired Florida Data Scientist

Florida law enforcement raided the Tallahassee home of Rebekah Jones on Monday. The data scientist helped build and run the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 information website before she was fired earlier this year.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said someone hacked into a state emergency messaging system last month and that the I-P address of the computer involved was traced to Jones' home.

Jones spoke to NPR via Skype in June. She said she was fired because Department of Health leaders wanted her to change COVID-19 numbers before the state reopened.

“I was asked to actually delete and then hide data from the public,” said Jones. “I said I wanted in writing that directive from my boss telling me to do that before I would do it."

State officials have repeatedly said Jones was fired for insubordination.

While her computer and phone were seized by authorities, Jones denies hacking the website and said she'll continue updating her own COVID-19 data website. No charges have been filed at this time.

Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis Launches Tour Pushing COVID-19 Lawsuit Protections for Businesses

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is travelling the state visiting restaurants and their owners to push for COVID-19 liability protections for small businesses. It’s a part of growing calls to shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits ahead of the state’s 2021 legislative session.

Sen. Keith Perry joined Patronis on the first stop of what the CFO has dubbed the “Restaurant Business Liability Tour.”

“When I grew up in Gainesville, 40, 50 years ago, you’d drive down a road in Gainesville and every single business was owned by a ‘mom and pop,’” the hometown Republican senator reminisced about how business has changed.

Perry spoke alongside the CFO earlier this week at Gainesville restaurant Blue Gill Quality Food.

“We had a J.C. Penny and we had a Sears, outside of that everything was owned by individuals. Now, almost everything is owned by large corporations,” Perry said. “And while they need protection too, we’re not out to protect the Publixes and the Wal-Marts, we’re out to protect the small businesses.”

Patronis is a former restaurant owner himself. And the tour is his push to get lawmakers to sign off on COVID-19 liability protections for small businesses, who have struggled since the start of the pandemic:

“In October, the Florida Chamber of Commerce did a survey of their businesses, and the single largest concern at businesses in Florida had is whether or not they were going to be able to reopen after COVID-19,” Patronis said Monday.

Blue Gill owner Bert Gill says customers still coming through his doors are buoying the restaurant for the time being. Yet, times remain tough.

“The idea for us is that we need some help. We need some help from our local government, our state government, our federal government. Some has been given, and we’re enormously grateful for it. We’re enormously grateful for the guests who still support us, my coworkers who show up every day, the people who had to be laid off and we brought back, and the sacrifices they made,” Gill said.

Senate President Wilton Simpson is going into his first legislative session leading the chamber, and he’s made protections for businesses a priority. Still, he’s warning those protections shouldn’t be overly broad.

“I don’t think you ever in any condition, put a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID, but I think if you’ve made the right attempt to follow the CDC guidelines, then I think that’s something we should take a look at,” Simpson told press following the legislature’s November organization session.

Threading the needle on the issue will likely generate debate over how far lawmakers should go.

During a stop in Orlando Tuesday, Patronis noted some large corporations are seeing lawsuits come their way, with what he described as “sue-and-settle tactics.”

“These suits will ultimately cause insurance rates to go up, and the flood of attorneys that will then pursue litigation, closing small businesses. We can’t let that happen, not in Florida – so we must get tourism back up and running, we must improve overall consumer confidence,” Patronis insisted. “And that means Tallahassee must lead. We must provide small business owners the confidence to be able to reopen without the fear of litigation.”

And Blue Gill owner Bert Gill says if he were to get hit with a lawsuit, it could tank his already struggling small business.

“Litigation is just another threat that hangs over my head,” Gill said. “The piggy bank’s empty. You know, we’ve drained everything to keep going, to make payroll. It goes on a credit card sometimes. It’s really, really tough.”

Patronis says even if they get added protections, businesses should still do everything they can to protect their customers and employees from COVID-19.

Florida this week surpassed one million recorded cases of coronavirus. Governor Ron DeSantis has said no further business restrictions or lockdowns will be put in place.

Business Unemployment Tax Set to Increase in 2021

State unemployment taxes are going up for businesses struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The minimum unemployment tax rate for employers will increase from 0.1% to 0.29% as of January 1, 2021.

This translates, in part, to all employers at the minimum rate seeing an increased tax rate of $13.30 per employee, from $7.00 worker to $20.30.

Minimum rate employers are businesses that have not had any layoffs in the prior three years. Other firms pay a higher tax, which helps pay for unemployment benefits for out-of-work Floridians.

Director of Business Economic Development and Innovation Policy at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Carolyn Johnson, said the increase comes at a difficult time for many businesses.

“They are still trying to figure out how to make ends meet, whether or not they are even going to be able to keep their doors open for much longer, and now they are faced with a 200% increase in their unemployment compensation tax rate,” said Johnson.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity has paid almost $19 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 2.12 million Floridians since March 15.

Most of the unemployment benefits paid out were covered by the federal government.

However, the state’s share has been almost $3.72 billion, depleting the pre-pandemic pool of nearly $4 billion funded through the unemployment tax.

South Florida Urge Congress to Pass Relief Package

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress are negotiating a $900 billion pandemic relief package to help small businesses, unemployed workers and state, local and tribal governments. However, they may not reach an agreement before funding runs out at the end of the year. At a food distribution in Miami Beach this past weekend, local officials urged them to get it done.

A winding line of cars formed at a beachfront park Dec. 5. One woman dried tears from her eyes as volunteers from Feeding South Florida put a box of groceries and fresh produce in her trunk.Elodie Mathurin, a volunteer who works as a server at the Fontainebleau, got emotional, too.

“That was a hard one today. A lot of times they put notes for us and things like that, but that one was a little – ugh—it got me,” said Mathurin.The Mayors of Miami and Miami Beach stood nearby, and the county mayor joined via Zoom. All are urging Congress to pass a relief bill. Miami Beach Commissioner David Richardson said phase four funding from the CARES Act is already tight.“So the state of Florida is getting fewer boxes than we were getting under phase three and that’s why we’re sometimes having to turn people away,” said Richardson.He said people will still need help after the funding expires on New Year’s Eve.“You can actually see right here on the ground what’s going on in the economy and what’s going on with the stimulus checks,” said Richardson.In Miami Beach, many of those in need used to have jobs in the hospitality sector.

Naples City Officials Vote Against Mask Order Again

City officials in Naples have once again chosen not to enact any form of mask mandate to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Naples Daily News reports, during a special meeting Dec. 3, city council members voted 4-33 against opting into Collier County's mask mandate. The county mandate doesn't cover incorporated municipalities like Naples and Marco Island.

Naples city officials also decided not to pass their own face covering resolution, opting instead to simply encourage mask wearing. The Naples City Council first voted against a mask order back in July.

City Councilman Ted Blankenship attended Thursday meeting virtually after he first tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 25. Blankenship was among city councilmembers who support a mask policy.

Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann, who is against a mask policy, tested positive for the coronavirus in early October.

FGCU to Bill for Unused COVID-19 Test Kits

Florida Gulf Coast University plans to bill students and staff who request COVID-19 testing kits, but who fail to use them.

The News-Press reports, before the Thanksgiving break, 1,199 students and employees requested saliva-based at-home tests, but that only about 33% of those tests were actually sent to the lab.

People who requested a test from the university before Thanksgiving, but failed to actually use it will not be billed, but that policy will change going into winter break which runs from Dec. 11 through Jan. 11.

The tests FGCU provides are ordered through Clinical Reference Laboratory Inc., and cost $97 for an individual test and $194 for a kit, which includes two tests.

The University's distribution of nearly 2,400 COVID-19 tests prior to Thanksgiving came at a cost of more than $232,000. Of the 805 requested tests that were actually used, six were positive for the virus.

Florida Flu Vaccine Rates Lowest in the U.S.

Florida has the lowest flu vaccination rate in the country according to the New York-based business insurance research firm AdvisorSmith.

The Naples Daily News reports, the firm's independent analysis of CDC data finds that Florida's flu vaccination rate averaged 40.3% in the three most recent flu seasons. Nevada and Wyoming have the second and third lowest flu vaccine rates, respectively.

The CDC recommends that all people over six months old get the flu shot as health officials are warning of a possible "twindemic" of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu that could overwhelm hospitals.

The flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19 and it is possible to have both viruses simultaneously.

Even so, officials with Lee Health and the NCH healthcare systems report dramatic reductions, this year, in seasonal flu cases.

Hospital Staff Can Get Sick in Communities, Too

Hospitals executives say in order to understand how COVID-19 affects South Florida, one has to look beyond the number of beds available.Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida CEO Justin Senior said without enough staff, people in those beds won’t get care. So, hospitals are worried about COVID-19 outside of their buildings, too.“The nurses and doctors live in the community and the food service workers and the people that are cleaning the rooms. They live in the community,” said Senior.

“They’re going to catch COVID-19 in the community. They come in, they test positive. They get knocked off line.”Senior said right now all facilities in the state have the capacity to care for patients, but that the public has to wear masks and keep a safe distance from others to keep it that way.

Record-Breaking Holiday Shipping Expected This Year

The U.S. postal service expects more holiday gifts will be sent through the mail this year due to social distancing. And they're not the only one. FedEx is expecting record-breaking shipping volumes as more packages are hitting their network than ever before.

Jami Caloway is waiting in line at a Tallahassee post office. She's there to pick up a gift and says most of her packages have been arriving late.

"I had USPS priority mail. I should have gotten it in three days. It took almost a week to get it," Caloway says.

Caloway says this holiday has been especially hard because she lost her job and hasn't had an unemployment check come in four weeks.

"I'm not doing any shopping this year. I just don't have the money," Caloway says.

So, friends and family are sending her packages. Clay Thompson owns two UPS stores in Tallahassee. He says it's been a challenging year for everyone and believes people may be feeling extra generous this year.

"Those people are coming into the store because I believe they have greater concerns for their families and friends, and they want to reach out to them in ways that they can't do such as face-to-face visits," Thompson says.

Many people are planning to spend their holiday hunkered down at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Meaning some gifts will have to be mailed off. It's something Wanda Harris is already seeing. She's President of the Miami Chapter of the American Postal Workers Union.

"The package industry has exploded due to the pandemic with everyone being at home. We always had a good volume of packaging, but [it] has increased even more due to the pandemic, and everyone, just about everyone is ordering online," Harris says.

Postal workers deliver more than mail. Carriers drop off parcels for companies like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon. Harris says mail has been increasing because lots of families are staying apart.

"So you know, a lot of love notes being sent, a lot of cards being sent, a lot of letters. The mail volume has come up a little bit even more. But the packaging has really increased," Harris says.

The post office says the two weeks before Christmas is the busiest time of the season. Harris says not long-ago postal workers had to deliver a surge of mail-in ballots for the 2020 general election, and those long shifts have continued into the holidays.

"So we're still working our 12, 14-hour shift, six days a week, some people are doing seven because of the increase of the package industry," Harris says.

The Postal Service recommends people send gifts earlier this holiday season to make sure it shows up on time.

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Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.
Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Verónica Zaragovia
Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.