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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 11,423 new COVID-19 cases, Thursday, for a total of 1,687,594 infections.

The Florida Department of Health reported 202 coronavirus-related deaths, Jan. 28, increasing the statewide death toll to 26,456 fatalities.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 9.58% on Wednesday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 8.37% and 15.84%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning 6,512 patients are admitted to hospitals throughout the state with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, including 465 patients in hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined.

Lee Health reported Wednesday afternoon that 153 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 77% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 12% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 17 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 29 COVID-19 positive patients in intensive care.

As of Wednesday morning, 1,567,152 people in Florida have received a COVID-19 vaccine including 1,319,822 people who have received a first dose, and 247,330 people who have completed the series with two doses.

FL Emergency Management Director Says Biden “Inherited a mess”

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz addressed a legislative committee, Thursday, saying the state's program to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities against COVID-19 is complete. He said that frees up resources for Florida's broader vaccination strategy.

The AP reports, Moskowitz's comments echo Governor Ron DeSantis' concern over inadequate delivery of vaccine doses amid intense demand.

Unlike the Republican governor, however, Moskowitz, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said President Joe Biden "inherited a mess.” He said the burden is on the federal government to provide more vaccine doses to Florida.

South Florida Members of Congress Criticize DeSantis' Vaccine Strategy

South Florida Democrats in Congress held a joint press conference via Zoom, Thursday, to critique Governor Ron DeSantis' rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

Democratic U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz noted that public information from the state remains inconsistent.

"DeSantis said that the state is now withholding COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that seniors and health care workers can get their second dose, but this is a full about-face from his statements last week,” said Wasserman Schultz.

DeSantis had previously dismissed the idea of conserving enough doses to allow hospitals to administer second shots.Fellow South Florida Democratic Congresswoman Lois Frankel took issue with DeSantis's messaging.

"He goes from county to county and he brags about distributing the vaccines when he really needs to be saying 'Everybody be patient, be patient, be patient. Wear your mask and social distance,’” said Frankel.

Earlier this week, DeSantis had sparred with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the amount of vaccine the federal government is allocating to Florida.

More Contagious COVID-19 Variant Continues Spread In Florida

The more contagious COVID-19 variant first found in England continues to spread throughout Florida.

The News-Press reports, federal health officials say this variant, known as B.1.1.7, could become the dominant strain by March.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an update Wednesday night, showing that Florida and California are now tied for the most identified cases of the COVID-19 variant with 92 cases each.

Most of Florida's cases have been in South Florida, but so far in Southwest Florida, there have been two cases found in Lee County, and one case each in Charlotte, Collier and Hendry Counties.

Sarasota School District To Provide COVID-19 Vaccine To Eligible Staff

The Sarasota County School District is partnering with the Florida Health Department to provide COVID-19 vaccine doses to eligible staff members this Sunday, Jan. 31.

Sarasota county school district employees who are 65 or older will be able to receive the vaccine this Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the county's vaccination site at Sarasota Square Mall.

The Herald Tribune reports 804 school district staff are eligible including full-time educators, administrative and support staff, substitute teachers and charter school employees.

Those eligible to receive the vaccine should have already received an email from the district with information on how to sign up.

Limited Supply, Confusion Hamper Efforts To Vaccinate 'Extremely Vulnerable' Floridians Under 65

Certain people with underlying health problems who are younger than 65 are allowed to get coronavirus vaccines in Florida right now, according to the executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in December.

But there's confusion as to who qualifies and how they can get their shots.

The state says hospital providers can vaccinate individuals they deem are "extremely vulnerable" to COVID-19.

The policy is rarely being applied in the state, according to State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando.)

“And if it is, the protocol for what defines a comorbidity is something that has been kept internal within the hospitals and not really something that the public has been able to understand to see whether or not themselves or their loved ones qualify," he said.

Smith wrote an open letter to hospitals this week asking them to offer what’s left of their vaccine supply to vulnerable patients struggling to access protection.

He said he was encouraged to see Jackson Health System announce that it will start vaccinating patients who are 55 and older, live in Miami-Dade County and have one of seven health conditions. The list includes some heart problems and organ transplants, among others.

Smith said he hopes more hospitals will follow suit with similar strategies, and he suggested including cancer patients and adults with Down syndrome.

“Now one of the challenges we've run into is that it's not entirely clear, because the state has not released information, exactly how much inventory on hand our hospitals still have as it relates to first doses that could be available,” he said.

Supply is a problem

Smith followed up on Thursday evening after he said he learned from state health officials that there are about 40,000 available first doses in 300 or so hospitals, but it’s unclear where those are located.

Major hospitals including Tampa General, Orlando Health, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Sarasota Memorial and HCA West Florida facilities told WUSF they don’t have any more first doses.

They said they’re focused on getting second doses to health workers and community members who received initial injections at their sites.

“We do not have sufficient supply at this time to schedule any more first doses, and we have not been notified when or if we will receive future supplies,” said Kim Savage, spokesperson for Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Rep. Smith said it seems like the state is shifting its vaccination strategy to give local health departments and private pharmacies like Publix more control, although he added he’d be surprised if hospitals never again received new supply.

But he said given the lack of available doses at hospitals right now, it’s time for Gov. DeSantis to revise his executive order so that county health departments and retail partners can also vaccinate high-risk individuals under 65.

“So we can really begin opening the doors of access to folks who really need it,” he said.

The state has not responded to a request for comment.

But BayCare Health System, which has also paused new vaccinations due to limited supply, said the Agency for Health Care Administration reached out to them and other organizations on Wednesday asking to help vaccinate extremely vulnerable patients under 65.

“We are working now to determine how we can be a partner in safely and efficiently supporting this request,” said BayCare spokesperson Vjollca Hysenlika.

Black Floridians get COVID-19 at a higher rate than whites, but whites get vaccinated at nearly three times the rate of Blacks

Black Floridians have contracted COVID-19 at a higher rate than their White counterparts. But an analysis of the latest data available from the Florida Department of Health showed White Floridians are getting vaccinated at nearly three times the rate.

According to Reverend R.B. Holmes, the disparity in how the pandemic has affected minority communities is nothing shocking or surprising. But that doesn’t make it any less concerning.

“We know very clearly and firmly why this is happening. Because of long-term healthcare disparities in Black and brown communities prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “You put this together and it is a recipe for disaster and death and devastation.”

That’s part of why Holmes and other leaders from Florida’s Black community formed the Florida Statewide COVID-19 Community Engagement Task Force. It’s an effort to get the vaccine to communities of color. Minorities contract and are killed by COVID-19 at higher rates than white Floridians.

The Task Force formed early in the rollout. But now Florida is a month-and-a-half into distribution. State data has provided the receipts to show why such a task force might be necessary.

Statewide disparity

WMNF analyzed the latest information available from the Department of Health. Black Floridians have gotten COVID-19 at a rate of about 63 per 1,000 people. Their white counterparts have gotten it at a rate of 56 for every 1,000. But the disparity jumps when looking at vaccinations.

Nearly 1.5 million people in the State have been vaccinated so far. Data shows 59 white Floridians get vaccinated for every 1,000. Only 21 Black Floridians receive the vaccine for every 1,000. That’s nearly three times the rate for whites over Blacks.

Dr. Cynthia Harris is a Task Force member and associate dean and director of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s Institute of Public Health.

“That is indeed a disparity,” she said. “And we want to help address that disparity.”

The County level

A deeper dive into county-level data shows even more alarming numbers. In Sarasota County, Black residents make up close to five percent of the population. Yet, they’ve received little more than one percent of the County’s vaccinations. That’s fewer than 400 people.

In Hillsborough, more than 58 percent of vaccinations have gone to white residents. Only five percent have gone to Black residents. In Pinellas, whites have gotten 67 percent of vaccinations and Blacks only four percent.

Black residents account for 18 percent of Hillsborough’s population and 11 percent of Pinellas’s.

Dr. Jason Salemi is an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida. He said a better analysis would be looking at age and race combined. But Florida doesn’t currently provide that information.

“This is about as accurate as you can get with the data that’s being provided,” he said. “How much of a disparity there is in the vaccination rate is what’s really striking.”

Moving with the message

Some of the disparity comes from a mistrust of the scientific community. But that’s been exacerbated by distribution points, which have largely popped up in more affluent communities with larger white populations.

Task Force member Dr. Temple Robinson said education in addition to allocation is what’s needed. In many cases, the vaccine will need to be taken to the people along with the message.

“We need 10 mobile units if we can get them,” she said. “I am really concerned because the church is so strong. And when it’s leading its people to say ‘no we’re not going to take the vaccine and we’re making a pact to not do it,’ we’re really in trouble. We’ve got to help our people help themselves.”

The Task Force set a goal to get 60-70 percent of minority communities vaccinated by the end of the year.

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Caitie Switalski Muñoz
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.