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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 9,592 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday, for a total of 1,083,362 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 84 new coronavirus-related deaths, Dec. 9, increasing the statewide death toll to 19,716 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past seven days, the single-day average number of new infections reported has increased to nearly 9,315 cases a day. The average number of daily deaths reported over the past week has increased to 100 fatalities a day. For the first time since July, there have been three consecutive days in the past week that the number of new cases of the virus reported topped 10,000 cases.

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 10.83% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks, the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 8.1% and 11%.

The number of patients being treated for COVID-19 in Florida hospitals is also on the rise.

The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration reports that as of this morning there are a total of 500 patients hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties combined.

Lee Health reported Wednesday that 151 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

As of Wednesday afternoon 80% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 23% of ICU rooms were available. The health system reported having 6 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 20 COVID-19 positive patients in intensive care.

Here's What the Rollout of The First Coronavirus Vaccines Will Look Like in Tampa Bay

Tampa General is one of five hospitals in the state that are getting ready to distribute the first vaccine against the coronavirus.

The first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine are expected by Dec. 15. They'll be kept in two special freezers that keep the vaccines at a crisp 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or minus 70 Celsius. Each freezer can hold about 30,000 doses.

The first group of people targeted will be front-line healthcare workers who work with COVID-19 patients every day. Nursing home workers are next up.

"By the end of this year, I think a lot of that phase one vaccination program will be in full swing. So it's an exciting time, I think, for the area," said Dr. Jason Wilson, associate medical director of Tampa General's emergency room.

"CVS, Walgreens, I think are the two commercial suppliers that will be helping to distribute it out to the long-term care facilities and nursing homes. That beginning stage here most of Tampa General's efforts will, you know, that very first early wave will be to get it to health care workers and then see if we can start to move it throughout the community," he said.

Tampa General has set up 20 locations throughout the greater Tampa Bay region to serve as immunization sites once enough doses are available that the hospital can start distributing vaccines to the general public.

This is a two-dose vaccine, so Wilson says people will have to get a second dose after 28 days.

Republican Attorney Who Resigned Over Rebekah Jones Raid Questions DeSantis’ Motives

A Republican attorney from Sarasota is speaking out against a raid by state police on the home of a former health department employee.

Ron Filipkowski resigned from his position as vice chair of the 12th Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission in protest after serving on the commission for a decade.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers served a warrant to Rebekah Jones on Monday,seizing her computers and cell phone at gun point.

Jones developed Florida’s coronavirus dashboard and was operating a similar web page on her own after being fired in May. She frequently criticized the state for not being transparent about the severity of the pandemic.

Authorities accuse her of hacking into the Department of Health’s messaging system to urge employees to speak out about the coronavirus.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has denied involvement in the investigation. But Filipkowski, a vocal critic of President Trump, doesn't buy it.

He told WUSF's Stephanie Colombini he suspects motives for the raid go beyond the alleged crime:

Do you think the state has much of a case here?

I don't really think they're [state law enforcement] interested in charging her [Jones] criminally. I don't think that that's the game here, that that's the goal.

I think that the goal is to silence and intimidate her. But really, more importantly, to silence and intimidate people currently working in the state government, you know, and to send a message to them.

First of all, find out who's talking to her and directly go after them, through discipline, demotion or termination. So I think that that's probably the main goal.

I would be shocked if she ever gets a criminal charge, especially now that it's gotten so much attention, I think that's even less likely to occur.

I know that she has denied sending the emails, I don't even really care about that.

Even if she did send the emails, to me, the Florida necessity defense, which is you're allowed to break the law to prevent a more serious harm from occurring, is very available to her. To me, if she sent the emails, that's what she did.

When you resigned, you basically said this was the final straw when it comes to the state's handling of this pandemic. What has been your problem with the governor's response that made this so significant?

It’s that we don’t have one. I mean, we don't have a response you know? Well definitely not the last two months, when he [DeSantis] issued his order that took everybody by surprise out of the blue, where he just upped and announced we weren't going to have any more restrictions. And local governments aren't allowed to impose any restrictions either, or fine anybody or do anything.

Everything that he's done on COVID policy has been at Trump's insistence, or direction of what Trump wants to happen in Florida. And that was all based on Trump's reelection.

So our health policy in the state of Florida, to me, has been held hostage by Trump's reelection.

And the problem that I have is that Florida is a state which has a huge elderly population of high-risk people. We're a tourist state, so we have a lot of people coming and going. And so we're a petri dish, you know, it's like we're a tinderbox and he's [DeSantis] lighting matches.

What did you hope to accomplish by resigning?

I didn't know if it would accomplish much, you know, really, I just thought it was going to be a local story. I'm really not high up on the food chain as far as political appointees go.

But there's so few people willing to do it, especially inside the party, you know, willing to sacrifice anything or give anything up. So I think that had there been more people of conscience willing to do something like this, I would have been a blip.

I saw someone on Twitter thank you for being “the unicorn of the Republican Party.” Do you feel that way? What have

you heard from your colleagues?

Well, “unicorn” just as far as going public, but there's so many Republicans – and I mean, from United States senators to, you know, just average citizens, who really strongly disagree with what's going on.

I know there are because they contact me, they have contacted me in the last 24 hours. People that I wouldn't have even thought, because they keep quiet, that have come out of the woodwork and said, ‘I completely agree with you on everything you said and everything you're doing.’

And would they say it publicly? No. So I think that that's really the difference.

Rebekah Jones Loses Attorney and Plea Deal

Following the raid on Rebekah Jones' home, the state revoked a plea deal in a separate misdemeanor stalking charge against her. Jones was charged with stalking a former boyfriend in 2019.

State Attorney for Florida's Second Judicial Circuit Jack Campbell said cancelling negotiations in a criminal case is typical when the defendant finds themselves under investigation for a separate crime.

Attorney, Robert Morris, has also removed himself from representing Jones because his wife is an FDLE agent assigned to the Jones investigation.

Jones tells Florida Today she's already acquired new legal representation and a GoFundMe account for Jones has already raised more than $212,000 dollars.

Report: More Floridians Are Dying From Drug Overdoses Amid Pandemic

More Floridians are dying from drug overdoses amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from the Orlando-based advocacy group Project Opioid.

The report looks at preliminary data from the Florida Department of Health and found overdose deaths between March and August of this year went up by at least 43 percent compared to the same time last year. Deaths in the month of May nearly doubled.

Those figures could increase as more medical examiners’ reports are submitted to the state.

The study found non-fatal overdoses also increased.

Project Opioid surveyed Floridians struggling with substance abuse issues and a majority said their mental health had become worse because of the pandemic, and that it became harder to get help.

Disruptions in care, job loss and increased stress and isolation due to the pandemic are contributing to the spikes, said Andrae Bailey, founder of Project Opioid.

“We need to look at every way possible to contain the spread of this virus, but if we keep doing that while ignoring the mental health and overdose crisis that's all around us people are going to continue dying in record numbers,” he said.

Bailey is calling for more money for treatment programs and emergency responders, as well as expanded access to telehealth. He said these were growing needs before the pandemic, but now it’s more important than ever.

“Community leaders need to feel the burden to come together and have a plan, but they're going to need the state and federal government to fund that plan like never before,” Bailey said, acknowledging the budget challenges local governments are facing because of coronavirus costs.

Bailey also urged people struggling with addiction and mental health issues not to avoid care because of the virus. He encourages leaders to incorporate discussions about how to get help into their public updates on pandemic response.

Lee Elementary School Classroom Goes Into Quarantine/District Encourages Poor Performing Students to Return to In-Person Classrooms
A classroom at a Lee County School District elementary school is closed for a 14-day quarantine due to cases of COVID-19. The News-Press reports, the fifth-grade classroom at Tanglewood Elementary School in Fort Myers is the fifth such classroom closure in the district due to the ongoing pandemic.

The first classroom closures in Lee County were at Gateway Elementary and Villas Elementary in September. A Bonita Elementary classroom closed in October followed by the closure of another classroom at Skyline Elementary in November.

Impacted students transitioned to the Lee Home Connect virtual learning model on Tuesday until the quarantine is lifted.

On Monday, the district informed families at 13 schools of positive cases of COVID-19 related to in-person classes. Since August, more than 330 positive case alerts have been sent out by the school district.

Meanwhile, the district is encouraging about 16,000 students currently receiving virtual instruction to return to in-person classroom learning when schools resume after winter break. School District spokesman Rob Spicker said phone calls are going out this week to the families of distance learning students identified as not making adequate progress.

Students who switch from a virtual learning model to brick-and-mortar instruction, or vice versa, may end up with a new teacher or a new schedule.

Changes can be made by completing an online form through the leeschools.net website.

The deadline is 5:00 p.m. Dec 13.

Sarasota Schools Change Quarantine Rules

Following new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Sarasota County School District is shortening the number of required quarantine days for any students or staff who have been exposed to COVID-19.

Previous guidance required people to quarantine for 14 days, but under new guidelines, any one exposed to the coronavirus will now be called on to stay home for nine days before returning to school. They can return to a school campus seven days after exposure if they receive a negative test result.

The Herald Tribune reports staff can return to work on the 11th day after a COVID-19 exposure if they have no symptoms, or on the eighth day if they have received a negative PCR test following the sixth day after exposure.

The Sarasota school district is also eligible for more than $5 million in federal CARES Act funding, which the district's CFO Mitsi Corcoran says would be used to pay staff for an additional week of preparation and training.

Sarasota City Officials Renew Mask Order

Sarasota city commissioners, Monday, voted unanimously to extend the city's mask ordinance for another 60 days. The vote comes amid a current surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the region and at the urging of Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials.

The Herald Tribune reports that without this week's vote, the city's current mask mandate would have expired Dec. 27.

In September, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that bars local municipalities from collecting fines from individuals who violate mask policies.

Sarasota city officials have not enforced their mask policy, and instead have looked to it as a safety net for businesses to require patrons to wear masks in their establishments.

Amid Promising COVID Vaccine News, Event Planners Optimistic About Economic Recovery

After a year of cancellations and closures, live conferences, corporate meetings, and large events may be some of the last parts of the economy to pick up steam again.

But with news that multiple vaccines against COVID-19 may be ready within months, some South Florida event planners are feeling optimistic about next year.

Deidre Everdij is the owner of the corporate event managing company COTC Events. She told WLRN that widespread distribution of the vaccine will be key for the industry.

“Our business is not reliant only on domestic [travel]," she said. "We need open international borders, and we need to be able to move freely around the world for this business, which is corporate events and meetings. And to do that, it's obviously the United States vaccination, but it's the whole world.”

Everdij also spoke at a webinar hosted Tuesday by the Florida Atlantic University College of Business.During that event, Steve O'Malley, the enterprise vice president of Maritz Global Events, said a long-term effect of the pandemic is that there will be a mix of virtual, in-person, and hybrid events — but less travel.

“Meetings and events will continue,” he said. “There is a reason that you need to bring people together face to face. I think what we're going to find at the other end of this is that the transient travel business is going to drop dramatically because so many of those trips were taking place that didn't need to take place.”

The panelists agreed they expect to see more live events again starting in the middle of 2021.

As Covid-19 Slowed Ship Traffic, The Ocean Grew More Quiet

The ocean got a little quieter this year, which is good news for whales and other marine life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, Wednesday, that early studies show the shutdown due to COVID-19 reduced the industrial noise that pollutes the oceans.

Humans make the ocean a noisy place and that can harm whales, dolphins and other marine life. Noise in oceans has worsened over the last two centuries, as the world industrialized and mechanized.

“So prior to the pandemic, Glacier Bay hosted over 600,000 visitors per year, most of those on cruise ships,” said Chris Gabriele. Gabriele is a biologist at Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.

“And 2020 presented a unique opportunity because the cruise ships and tour boats were absent.”

Gabriele said the bay’s humpback whales, meanwhile, appeared to flourish.

“We saw them out in the middle of the channels, taking naps, socializing, feeding with others. I heard a lot of long exchanges between the whales, including what I think may have been a mother and calf. So, it's like this horrible pandemic confined us humans into really small spaces, but gave the whales back a lot of room to roam, both physically and acoustically,” said Gabriele.

Over the next year, he and other scientists plan to expand their research to see how marine life in other places reacted to the slow down. Their findings could lead to ways to make ships less noisy and make the ocean a quieter place once again.

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.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay 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.
Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.