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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 7,884 COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 1,579,281 infections.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 137 coronavirus-related deaths, Monday, increasing the statewide death toll to 24,657 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 12.56% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 10.81% and 14.41%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning 7,447 patients are admitted to hospitals throughout the state with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, including 481 patients in hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee and Sarasota counties combined.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 181 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 74% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 17% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 9 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 21 COVID-19 positive patients in 938,537 people who have received a first dose, and 93,258 people who have completed the series with two doses.

As of Monday morning, The Florida Division of Emergency Management reports 1,031,795 people in Florida have received a COVID-19 vaccine including 938,537 people who have received a first dose, and 93,258 people who have completed the series with two doses.

Sarasota To Roll Out New COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment System

Sarasota County officials are set to rollout a new COVID-19 vaccine appointment reservation system, Wednesday. The Herald Tribune reports the new system will allow eligible people 65 and older to register via phone, a mobile app or a computer.

The new system will be first come, first served, to people who register. Details on the new reservation system are expected Tuesday.

Sarasota's vaccine appointment system has been through the website Eventbrite, but the bottleneck of thousands of people vying for a much smaller supply of vaccine doses has frustrated residents seeking the vaccine.

Initially, Manatee County officials also had used the Eventbrite website to reserve appointments, but switched to a lottery system about two weeks ago.

Emergency Chief Points Finger at Feds on Vaccinations

The federal government is mostly to blame for what some people see as a slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Florida, state Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz told a House panel Thursday.

Appearing before the newly created House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee, Moskowitz said the federal government has been slow in releasing enough supply to Florida to meet demand.

Also, he says a federal contract with the pharmacy companies CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate nursing-home residents ran behind schedule, forcing the state to pick up the slack to quickly get people vaccinated in long-term care facilities.

Moskowitz is also aware of reports of what is being called “vaccine tourism,” where people come to the state to get vaccinated.

He calls that behavior “abhorrent,” but feels it is proof Florida is doing a better job than most states at getting shots in arms.

“I do find it somewhat ironic that if you believe the headlines and Florida was such a disaster in getting the vaccine out, then why are people from around the world flying here to get their vaccine?” said Moskowitz.

He drew a distinction between people who travel to the state for vaccinations and people who live in the state during the winter months.

Statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment System In The Works

A statewide COVID-19 vaccine appointment system is in the works in Florida. Speaking to members of a state House committee, Jan. 14, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Moskowitz said the online portal could be ready in weeks.

The AP reports, Moskowitz said a statewide appointment system would bring order to some of the confusion and chaos that's marked the initial weeks of the vaccine roll out to Florida's most vulnerable residents.

Florida Health Experts Weigh Risks, Benefits Of Holding Back Second Doses Of Coronavirus Vaccines

There are still a lot of concerns surrounding the federal government's recommendation to stop holding back second doses of coronavirus vaccines in order to get more shots in arms now.

This week, shortly after President-Elect Joe Biden announced his administration would do this once he took office, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration was also changing course.

The move created confusion for states and hospitals, particularly after the Washington Post reported over the weekend that the federal government had already exhausted its reserve supply of second doses before Azar made his remarks. That meant communities expecting a mass influx of vaccines this week are left to deal with limited allocations similar to what they were previously receiving.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said Florida is committed to getting everyone both doses, but said the state could change how it distributes them.

Allocating vaccines without factoring in an ample reserve supply of second doses is risky, according to Jay Wolfson, public health professor at the University of South Florida.

He said even though the vaccines are authorized for emergency use, we're still learning a lot about them.

Wolfson said it's critical to stick to the protocol manufacturers used when they tested the vaccines, because he said that is the best way to ensure the 95% efficacy rates the vaccines achieved in clinical trials.

For Pfizer, that means getting a second dose about three weeks after the first; for Moderna, four weeks.

“If you say, well let's just release all the vaccines, the second doses as first doses, to get more people vaccinated, what happens, God forbid, if there's a problem with the supply chain or something happens and you don't have enough second doses to come in at the right time?” Wolfson said.

The slow rollout of vaccines so far and recent report that the Trump administration may have misled the public about how much vaccine is available fuel anxiety that limited supplies could continue to cause distribution problems.

But having to delay the timing of second doses may not be the end of the world, according to Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.

“The data from the clinical trials, particularly from the Moderna trials, suggests that within two weeks of your first dose you actually do have fairly substantial immunity,” he said. “And so consequently, the idea of delaying the second dose if need be for logistics reasons is not irrational, and in fact that's what the United Kingdom has done.”

Morris said getting the second dose eventually is important, especially for longer-lasting protection. But he said with coronavirus cases surging in the state, the priority now needs to be getting as many people vaccinated as possible – and fast.

Data Scientist Turned Whistleblower Rebekah Jones Turns Herself In

Rebekah Jones, the former Florida Department of Health data scientist turned whistleblower surrendered herself into law enforcement custody, Sunday night, on a felony charge of "offenses against uses of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices,” according to a news-release from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

If convicted, Jones could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The FDLE alleges Jones sent a message through the state health department's emergency alert messaging system called ReadyOp calling on workers to blow the whistle.

Jones alleges she was fired from the health department for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 testing data last year. State officials say she was fired for insubordination. Florida Today reports, Jones is out on a $2,500 bond. She also tested positive for COVID-19 while in custody.

Bill To Create Penalty For Phony Coronavirus Vaccine Website Scam Passes First Stop

The Florida Legislature wants to stop scammers from taking advantage of people seeking vaccine doses. Fraudsters created fake internet pages designed to look like Pasco and Pinellas County Health Departments and charged money for fake vaccination appointments. They aren’t the only ones.

The Department of Legal Affairs Consumer and Protection Division has been contacted more than 14,000 to report COVID-19 related fraud. State Rep. Ardian Zika (R-Land O' Lakes) is the bill sponsor.

"Recently the federal, state, and local officials have warned Florida consumers to be careful of offers to get special access to the COVID-19 vaccine in exchange for money," said Zika. "They often use, these fraudsters, authentic-looking but fake websites to lure unsuspecting consumers into paying for vaccines or appointments that never materialize."

The first time a fraudster is caught disseminating false information they will face a third-degree felony. Continued attempts can lead to a second-degree felony. The legislation would also allow the attorney general to shut down websites or other media platforms that disseminate false information about a vaccine.

Surgeon General Rivkees Hopes For Increased Vaccine Allocation

Florida expects to receive another 250,000 vaccines in a week. That’s according to Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees. The state is prioritizing vaccinations for people 65 and older, and the federal government recently revised its guidelines to do the same. In Florida, about 4.5 million people fit that category. Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami) notes it will take several weeks to get everyone who qualifies vaccinated.

"We need nine weeks at the very least just to vaccinate 65 and over that are willing to take it," said Pizzo. "If everybody wanted to take it, it’d be 18-19 weeks."

Rivkees told a Senate Committee Thursday he’s hopeful the state will get a larger allocation due to its outsized senior population. Of the shots given out so far, 60% went to people in the 65 and over age group.

South Florida Physician Seeks COVID-19 Long-Haulers For Study On Monoclonal Antibody Drug

A rheumatologist in Aventura needs volunteers for a double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study on a drug that might be a candidate to treat COVID-19 long-hauler syndrome, if it gets approved down the line.

The long-hauler syndrome is "thought to be a result of a post-reactive inflammatory response to the COVID that affects the immune system—which creates many different symptoms in the patient," said Dr. Norman Gaylis, who's conducting the study.

Gaylis said he constantly sees patients with these symptoms—which may persist for months—even after testing negative for the virus. They experience fatigue, headaches, joint pain, brain fog, shortness of breath or skin rashes that won’t go away.

"People shouldn’t feel like they need to just live with it," Gaylis said. "That’s been unfortunately a frustration—that nobody really knows or does anything to help many of these patients. So getting them to come and be evaluated, and then if they’re candidates for the study, great."

When someone develops COVID-19, the body launches an immune response and tries to protect itself. But there's an exaggerated inflammatory reaction that can make a person much sicker. The drug Gaylis is studying, Vyrologix, is a monoclonal antibody researchers hope will be able to block that reaction. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made proteins that function like human antibodies in our immune system.

The unpaid study is slated to begin in February, pending an official approval by the Food and Drug Administration and an institutional review board. Participants must have proof of a positive test in the past and experience long-hauler syndrome.

For more information, call Dr. Gaylis's office at 305-652-6676 or email ngaylis@rheum-care.com.

Miami Mayor Seeking to Prevent Non-Residents From Receiving COVID-19 Vaccine

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is asking city leaders to do what they can to prevent non-residents from receiving COVID-19 vaccine doses before they're made available to Miami's elderly and vulnerable populations.

The AP reports, during a city commission meeting Jan. 14, Suarez pitched his idea dubbed, "Miami First."

Federal regulators say residency requirements in order to receive the vaccine are prohibited. A vaccine clinic at Marlins Park in Miami is set to open as early as Wednesday, Jan. 20.

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Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
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.
Verónica Zaragovia
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.