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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 13,900 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday for a total of 1,517,472 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 169 coronavirus-related deaths, Jan. 13, increasing the statewide death toll to 23,759 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 12.46% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks, Florida's single-day positivity rate has ranged between 11.97% and 14.71%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning, there are 581 patients hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties combined. Throughout the state there are a total of 7,734 patients currently hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Wednesday afternoon that 194 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 72% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 9% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 12 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 27 COVID-19 positive patients in intensive care.

As of Wednesday, 707,478 people in Florida have received a vaccine, including 646,327 people who have received their first dose and 61,151 who have completed the series with two doses.

16 Publix Pharmacies in Collier To Begin Administering COVID-19 Vaccine Thursday

Florida’s partnership with Publix grocery store chain to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses is expanding and will now include 16 Publix locations in Collier County.

During a media briefing in Ponte Vedra Beach Wednesday morning, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that beginning Wednesday, Jan 13, people 65 and older can make appointments to receive the vaccine at the newly announced locations through Publix online at publix.com/covidvaccine. Vaccine administration at the newly added Publix pharmacy locations, including those in Collier County, begins Thursday.

Last week’s initial rollout of vaccines being offered through Publix pharmacies included 23 stores in Citrus, Marion and Hernando Counties. Earlier this week, that expanded to include 26 more Publix locations in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay Counties in the Florida Panhandle.

The new Publix vaccine distribution sites announced Wednesday include 14 stores in St. John’s County, 4 in Flagler, 22 in Volusia and 16 sites throughout Collier County including:

Marco Town Center 1089 N. Collier Blvd. Marco Island, FL

Shoppes at Hammock Cove 4370 Thomasson Drive Naples, FL

Berkshire Commons 7101 Radio Road Naples, FL

Riverchase Shopping Center 11200 Tamiami Trail North Naples, FL

Crossroads Market Shopping Center 5991 Pine Ridge Road Naples, FL

Pine Ridge Crossing Shopping Center 2310 Pine Ridge Road Naples, FL

Freedom Square 12663 Tamiami Trail E. Naples, FL

Pelican Strand 5624 Strand Blvd. Naples, FL

Naples Walk 2450 Vanderbilt Beach Road Naples, FL

The Shoppes at Pebblebrook 15265 Collier Blvd. Naples, FL

Naples Lakes Village Center 8585 Collier Blvd. Naples, FL

Brooks Village 12975 Collier Blvd. Naples, FL

Marketplace at Pelican Bay 8833 North Tamiami Trail Naples, FL

Naples Plaza 1981 Tamiami Trail North Naples, FL

Kings Lake Square 4860 Davis Blvd. Naples, FL

Neighborhood Shoppes at Orangetree 13550 Immokalee Road Naples, FL

During Wednesday’s media briefing in Ponte Vedra Beach, Governor DeSantis touted the state’s vaccine rollout so far. “We have now done in the state of Florida, there’s been reported close to 400,000 seniors have received vaccines. That’s the most of any state by a country mile and that’s just what’s being reported,” said DeSantis.

“We’re the only state that’s done a majority of our vaccines for seniors and we’ve done now 60% of all reported shots have gone to people 65 and up and that percentage is going to increase each week.”

DeSantis repeated his stance that prioritizing seniors over essential workers in the initial vaccine rollout is the right decision. On Tuesday Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government is directing states to use their vaccine supplies to start vaccinating individuals age 65 and older as well as anyone with a comorbidity that puts them at risk.

Publix Vaccine Rollout Follows Grocer’s $100K Donation To DeSantis’ Political Committee

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement this month that the state is partnering with Publix Supermarkets to establish COVID-19 vaccination sites across the state follows the grocer donating $100,000 to the governor’s political committee.

The partnership announcement between the state and supermarket chain comes a month after Publix made four $25,000 donations to Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Prior to the $100,000 in contributions made in December 2020, Publix had donated $50,000 to the governor’s political committee, the most recent of which was $25,000 given in January of 2020.

In an email to WJCT News, Publix Director of Communications Maria Brous said any inference of a connection between those contributions and the grocer’s partnership with the state on COVID-19 vaccinations is “absolutely incorrect.”

Brous added, “As a Florida-based company with more than 750 pharmacies throughout the state, Publix is well-positioned to serve as a partner in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to Florida's residents. Our large footprint, infrastructure and distribution network across the state, as well as our experience with administering the flu vaccine (and other vaccines) and online scheduling technology, gives us the capability to efficiently deploy the vaccine. That expertise is critically needed at this time. In less than a week we have vaccinated more than 10,000 Floridians in only 22 of our stores. We are determined to do our part to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and serve our communities.”

On Jan. 5, Gov. DeSantis announced that Publix would be receiving 15,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from the state to launch a new pilot program at 22 Publix stores in Citrus, Hernando and Marion Counties.

“As part of our ongoing efforts to increase vaccinations and put Florida’s seniors first, I’m pleased to announce this innovative partnership with Publix,” Gov. DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, we are all in this together, and the state of Florida thanks Publix for their willingness to step up and lend their infrastructure to this critical cause.”

Then on Jan. 12 and again on Jan. 13, the governor announced that the state’s partnership with Publix was expanding.

The vaccines are now being offered at more than 100 stores across the state, according to Publix.

Publix came under fire in 2018 after it donated $670,000 to DeSantis’ gubernatorial opponent Adam Putnam, who called himself a “proud NRA sellout” and opposed stricter state gun laws passed after the Parkland school shooting, as was reported in The Tampa Bay Times.

The Friends of Ron DeSantis committee has raised more than $50 million to date and over a million dollars in November and December of 2020 alone.

Sarasota Looking To Change COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment System

Sarasota County officials are looking to change their reservation system for securing appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine dose. The county's current appointment system through the website Eventbrite has been criticized because residents without access to a computer or the internet can't access it and because the site is often overwhelmed by people trying to secure an appointment.

The Herald Tribune reports, Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County Health Officer Chuck Henry told county commissioners, Wednesday, that the state is developing several pilot reservation systems, but that the project has been delayed by technical difficulties.

Sarasota County is looking to shift its reservation system to Everbridge, which is already used for emergency response, and which would allow people to access appointments via phone as well as online. The county has completed a pilot of the program and the Department of Health in Sarasota could launch it this week or early next week.

Henry said he hopes the new system will allow health officials to target specific regions of the county to better distribute vaccine doses.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital held a vaccine clinic, Wednesday in Newtown, where 400 people received a dose of the vaccine. Sarasota Memorial organized the clinic WITHOUT going through the county's appointment reservation system, and instead partnered with churches and community organizations in order to get the vaccine to more people of color.

Also Wednesday, the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force unveiled a plan to get the vaccine to more communities of color by designating a minimum of 40 vaccine sites in the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeastern parts of the state by the end of January.

Sarasota Schools See COVID-19 Cases Spike After Winter Break

Since students returned to the classroom after winter break in Sarasota County, the number of new COVID-19 infections has increased dramatically.

In the week since classes resumed, there have been more than 300 new coronavirus infections, which is more than the district experienced during the first 11 weeks of school combined.

The Herald Tribune reports, health officials were anticipating that holiday travel and gatherings would lead to an increase in cases and district officials say they're confident that this recent spike is linked to holiday gatherings and not an indication that schools are becoming COVID-19 breeding grounds for virus transmission.

School officials in Manatee County say they're preparing for a similar spike. COVID protocols have changed slightly for Manatee County School District students returning from winter break. Previously, a student showing coronavirus symptoms could return to the classroom if they're symptom free for 24 hours and have not had contact with someone with the virus.

Now a student showing symptoms must provide evidence of a negative COVID test to return for in-person learning.

Assisted Living Company, With Florida Facilities, Requires Staff To Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

Infectious disease experts say the U.S. needs to vaccinate 75 to 85% of the public to reach the early stages of herd immunity, so a Kentucky-based company, called Atria Senior Living, has decided to require its roughly 10,000 staff members in the country to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Atria, a national assisted living and nursing home operator, has three facilities in South Florida — in Jupiter, Lake Worth and Fort Lauderdale.

"We have a privilege," said John Moore, Atria’s CEO. He says he got his second dose of the vaccine earlier this week. "We’ve been given priority access to the vaccine and I believe we have somewhat of an obligation not to waste that opportunity."

Moore described the company's decision not as a perfect answer to get the most people in the U.S. vaccinated as possible but in "making it so that Atria residents live in a vaccinated environment and Atria staff work in a vaccinated environment. It just seems like the right answer for us."

Atria is requiring staff to get vaccinated by May 1 at CVS clinics on its properties. New hires must sign a vaccination consent form.

Dale Ewart, the executive vice president of the Florida division of the 11-99 SEIU — which represents nursing home workers — said the union does urge all of its members to get vaccinated, because the damage caused to health, lives and society outweighs the potential side effects of the vaccine. However, he disagrees with Atria's decision.

"Forcing a decision on them rather than having conversations and providing information is not a good way to treat people with respect but it’s also not a good way to get compliance," said Ewart, pointing out that hesitancy is not about being anti-vaccines but about having valid concerns. "I believe as we see more people get vaccinated, as we witness first-hand that the side effects are mild and short lived, if at all, that more and more people will be comfortable and get the vaccination."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released guidance allowing employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations, though it recommends exceptions for employees with disabilities.

Florida Lawmakers Not Banking On Federal Government Aid To Fill Budget Holes

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic uncertainty have blown a $3.3 billion hole into the state’s budget projections for the next two years. That’s actually an IMPROVEMENT from what state economists first thought. Still, the state will need to find an extra $2.75 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, and the House appropriations committee chairman isn’t looking to the federal government for help.

State economists say lawmakers will need to cut about $2 billion from the budget in the upcoming fiscal year, and healthcare and education—the two largest spending items—are already being eyed. During a budget overview in the House appropriations committee, Democratic Representative Joe Geller asked whether the legislature could build a parallel budget plan that factors in federal aid.

“Obviously we don’t know how much it would be…how much would it need to be for us to be looking at a substantially improved picture?” Geller asked Appropriations Committee Chairman Jay Trumbull. Trumbull's response?

"I think it’s incumbent on this body to make decisions on our fiscal health as it relates to today, without any understanding of whether congress is going to give extra money, because in reality, we don’t know.”

Lawmakers are hoping for better news when the next budget estimate rolls out in February, but they’re planning for worst-case scenarios.

While most of the state's general revenue is spent on education, the healthcare budget is larger, infused with a large amount of federal money. Much of those dollars are spent on Medicaid which covers low-income Floridians, and as unemployment has soared, so have the state's Medicaid enrollment.

The fiscal picture isn't slated to improve much soon, largely due to the headwinds facing the state's biggest industry: tourism. Economists believe it'll take several more years before that sector rebounds.

Florida Officials Push Back Against Allegations of Vaccine Tourism

State officials are pushing back against allegations that non-residents are traveling to Florida just to receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose. Florida was one of the first states to open vaccine availability to members of the general public who are 65 or older.

The AP reports, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials say non-residents getting inoculated in Florida are almost entirely seasonal residents who split their time between Florida and some other home state. Because these "snowbirds" spend a significant amount of the year in Florida and could infect others, DeSantis says its important they get vaccinated.

Records released this week by the Florida Department of Health indicate about 4% of people who have been vaccinated in Florida list an out-of-state address.

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Brendan Rivers comes to WJCT News with years of experience reporting and hosting news for several stations in the Daytona Beach area.
Verónica Zaragovia
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.