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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

40,000 Floridians Get Pfizer’s Vaccine in First Week — And 367,000 Moderna Doses Coming

More than 350,000 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine arrive in Florida this week, as the state’s vaccination campaign ramps up in force.

So far, the FDA has authorized two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use: Pfizer’s vaccine, which must be stored in ultra-cold freezers, and one from Moderna. More than 40,000 Floridians have gotten the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine since it became available, according to a state report released over the weekend.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says 367,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are coming to Florida this week. Since it doesn’t need to be kept ultra-cold, like the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna one will be distributed to 173 hospitals in 43 counties.

Speaking to reporters Monday, DeSantis said he wants to prioritize residents over 75 ahead of essential workers.

“We’re looking at, take away what we’ve already received, maybe another 750,000 doses by the end of the month, maybe a little more,” DeSantis said. “Then hopefully a million and a half, 2 million doses in January. That can do a lot in the 70-plus population. If you’re going to try to do every essential worker, that’s not going to be nearly enough for what you would need anyway.”

The COVID-19 vaccines are currently being offered to frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. An FDA panel is recommending essential workers and people over the age of 75 be the next groups to get vaccinated.

The vaccines could not come at a better time in Florida. The state is now averaging more than 10,805 new cases per day in the last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University analyzed by NPR. That’s an 11 percent increase over last week – bolstered by two days of nearly 13,000 new cases last week.

Florida added about 10,700 new COVID-19 cases, according to figures released today. DeSantis said the state will encourage vaccinations, but will not require it.

“While we encourage you to take it, we will not mandate that you do so,” DeSantis said. “I’m also continued to our state’s continued economic recovery. I’ll always protect the right of Floridians to earn a living and provide for their families.”

As of Monday morning, 5,490 patients were in the hospital statewide with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19. Florida has averaged about 100 deaths every day in the last week.

COVID-19 Vaccines Coming to Lee Health & NCH Healthcare System

Hospitals in Southwest Florida plan to begin administering COVID-19 vaccine doses to front-line medical staff today, Dec. 22. Lee Health spokesman Jonathan Little tells the News-Press several thousand of the Pfizer vaccine doses are expected Tuesday and that the initial delivery will provide initial doses of the vaccine to medical staff working in high-risk environments.

The Naples Daily News reports the NCH Healthcare System tentatively plans to begin vaccinating medical staff Tuesday as well.

In order to receive full protection, two doses of the vaccine need to be administered about three weeks apart. Doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are expected to be delivered to NCH and Park Royal psychiatric hospital in Fort Myers.

Florida’s Latest COVID-19 Data

State health officials reported 11,015 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 1,212,581 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 112 new coronavirus-related deaths, Dec. 21, increasing the statewide death toll to 20,976 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past week, the single-day average number of new infections reported has increased to nearly 11,195 cases a day. The average number of daily deaths reported over the past week now stands at nearly 100 fatalities a day. State health officials have reported daily case increases of more than 11,000 infections in five of the last seven days. The number of new cases reported has exceeded 13,000 infections in two of the past seven days.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, using the formula recommended by the World Health Organization, stood at 10.83% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks, the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 9.58% and 11.97%.

The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration reports that as of this morning, Dec. 22, there are a total of 488 patients hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties combined.

Lee Health reported Monday that 144 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 77% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 30% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 12 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 25 COVID-19 positive patients in intensive care.

Naples City Council Adopts Mask Order

The Naples city council voted, Monday, to adopt a mask mandate amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Naples Daily News reports, the mask order requires people to wear face coverings inside establishments like restaurants, grocery stores and shops and during outdoor public events.

The mandate puts the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the order on businesses and event organizers, who could face fines. An initial offense will result in a notice from city code enforcement. Repeated violations could result in a code enforcement hearing and fines of up to $250 per day per incident or up to $500 per day per incident for repeat offenses.

The mask order includes exceptions for children under 2 years old and people with medical conditions. It's set to expire April 13, when Governor DeSantis' emergency order on the pandemic is also slated to sunset.

Back in July and again earlier this month, Napes city council members voted against opting into Collier County's mask mandate.

Florida Coalition Requests Freeze on Shutting Off Utilities

A Florida coalition is requesting utilities remain on until June of 2021 for people behind on payments. Between March and October, Florida’s four largest utility companies incurred more than 60 million in debt due to late payments. Orlando resident Marta Orbe says she wants to pay but can’t and doesn’t know where to get help.

“I don’t know where I need to go, it’s no flyers. But when it’s the time for vote and stuff they send flyers, why they don’t send any flyers for people who need help," said Orbe. "We don’t know where to go, which people we need to contact. It’s terrible."

The group Connected in Crisis sent a letter to the Chairs of the Florida House and Senate Budget Committee urging them to address the crisis. In October, Florida Power and Light disconnected more than 70,000 residential customers' power and mailed out more than 340,000 notices for disconnection.

Doctors Try to Ease Fears of Taking Coronavirus Vaccine

The first vaccinations for COVID-19 are being given out in Florida, but a lot of people have misgivings about the vaccine, with one survey of Hillsborough County residents showing one out of every three people wouldn't get the inoculation.

Some doctors are trying to allay those concerns.

Manuel Gordillo, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, spoke during a conference call Friday.

"The fact that after eight weeks of observations on tens of thousands of people that have had no significant side effects -- it's very, very important and a testament to the safety of these vaccines," Gordillo said.

James Fiorica, Chief Medical Officer at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, said the Pfizer vaccine isn't like traditional vaccines.

"There's no live virus in it," he said. "What it does, the messenger RNA tells the cells in our body to make protein to protect ourselves. It's our own body protecting ourselves, it's not a foreign virus that's doing it. "

Dr. Jason Wilson, the associate medical director at Tampa General Hospital's emergency department, also spoke Friday on The Florida Roundup about the vaccine, which he and his colleagues received this week.

"Most of us have complained about the same things we get from the flu shot or a tetanus shot. I did have some soreness in my arm the next day but by 48 hours, really, everyone was feeling much better," Wilson said.

He said 85% of people experience soreness at the injection site, but overall, side effects are minimal.

A recent from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 71% of respondents say they would "definitely or probably get a vaccine for COVID-19 if it was determined to be safe by scientists and available for free to everyone who wanted it," up from 63% in a September survey.

Sen. Rick Scott Votes Against COVID-19 Relief Bill

Florida's Rick Scott was one of six Republican U.S. Senators to vote no on the $900 billion coronavirus relief package. The measure easily passed both houses of Congress Monday night.

In a statement, Scott said he supported parts of the bill that help small businesses and the unemployed, but said lawmakers didn't have enough time to read the 5,600-page proposal before voting on it.

Scott said the bill will lead to increased taxes and more national debt in the future.

Former Health Department Data Manager Sues FDLE Over Raid

Former Florida Department of Health data manager Rebekah Jones filed a lawsuit, Sunday, against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stemming from a raid on her home earlier this month.

Jones, who was the architect of the state health department's COVID-19 dashboard, was fired in May. State officials say she was fired for insubordination. Jones alleges she was fired for refusing to manipulate data and she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations two months after her termination.

The News-Press reports, Jones alleges the Dec. 7 raid on her home was a "sham" in retaliation against her. The lawsuit names FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, the department itself and several agents.

The suit claims Jones' constitutional rights were violated, including against unlawful search and seizure. She is seeking more than $100,000.

The raid was related to an ongoing FDLE investigation into a security breach of the health department's emergency communication network that agents said led them to the IP address of a computer in Jones' home. Jones denies she hacked into the account and has not been charged with a crime.

FDLE Commissioner Swearingen reiterated his support, Monday, for the agents involved in the raid. Video of the incident shows agents entering the home with guns drawn.

Sarasota COVID-19 Testing Site Closed

One of two state-supported COVID-19 testing sites in Sarasota County closed Sunday afternoon, causing a backlog at the other site.

The Herald Tribune reports, the county's only drive-thru testing site on Cattleman Road closed Dec. 20, leading to overflow, Monday at the state-run testing site at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County tells the Herald Tribune, the site is being moved to the Sarasota Kennel Club, which is about two miles away from the Taylor Community Complex, meaning that access to COVID-19 testing through the Health Department in Sarasota is now limited to the far northern region of the County.

Florida Division of Emergency Management press secretary Samantha Bequer said the testing site on Cattlemen Road closed because the location's owners opted not to extend a lease agreement and that the department is working to identify additional locations for COVID-19 testing.

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Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.
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.
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.
Bradley George comes to WUSF from Atlanta, where he was a reporter, host, and editor at Georgia Public Broadcasting. While in Atlanta, he reported for NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and The Takeaway. His work has been recognized by PRNDI, the Georgia Associated Press, and the Atlanta Press Club. Prior to his time in Georgia, Bradley worked at public radio stations in Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.