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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 7,788 new COVID-19 cases, Sunday, for a total of 1,721,377 infections.

The Florida Department of Health reported 119 coronavirus-related deaths, Jan. 31, increasing the statewide death toll to 26,915 fatalities.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management increased to 18.24% on Thursday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 8.37% and 18.24%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning 6,097 patients are admitted to hospitals throughout the state with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, including 438 patients in hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined.

As of Friday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reports 1,605,995 people in Florida have received a COVID-19 vaccine including 1,332,746 people who have received a first dose, and 273,249 people who have completed the series with two doses.

Florida Launches State-Run Website For COVID-19 Vaccinations

Florida launched a new state-run website, Friday, for people to register for COVID-19 vaccinations across most counties.

How it works: First, choose your preferred location. Then, when appointments become available, those registered will get a call, text or email to schedule your shot.

Signups are limited to people who are eligible for the vaccine. For the time being, that’s frontline healthcare workers and seniors 65 and older. However, some hospitals have expanded eligibility for the vaccine to people they deem high risk for serious illness from COVID-19.Vaccine providers may ask for proof of Florida residency when people show up to their appointment.To sign up or see which vaccination sites in your county have appointments currently available, visit myvaccine.fl.gov.

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 orderGov. 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 listincludes 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 strategyto 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.

Responding to a request for comment, Samantha Bequer, spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management said on Friday, "At time this, hospital providers are the entities designated to vaccinate individuals who they have deemed to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. "

"Individuals who are not frontline health care workers or 65 and older would need to receive the vaccine from their hospital provider," she added.

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.

On Friday the state launched a new sign-up website for vaccines that lists "individuals deemed extremely vulnerable to COVID-19" as a category of residents who can get on a waitlist.

WUSF went through the sign-up process to see if there were questions about health conditions. There were not.

Registration involved entering name, birth date and zip code. It also posed yes or no questions about being a frontline health worker, a Florida resident, an EPI-pen user (to catch people who may have allergic reactions to vaccines) and someone seeking their first dose.

After filling out the information, which included Hillsborough County as a preferred location and a birth year for someone under 65 (and 55) WUSF was directed to a page saying," At this time based on state and county vaccination priorities, we are only scheduling appointments for people 65 years or older."

The site confirmed a successful sign-up for email updates from the state about vaccines, but it is still unclear how extremely vulnerable patients younger than 65 will be able to get on the waitlist.

One possibility may be over phone. Each county has a hotlineresidents can call. That may give vulnerable patients an opportunity to explain their situation and pre-register for an appointment.

COVID-19 Variant Continues To 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.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 147 cases of the variant identified in Florida so far and 113 cases in California.

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

Florida To Open Vaccine Clinic in Belle Glade

State officials say a COVID-19 vaccination distribution site is coming to Belle Glade to serve the predominantly Black farming communities along the edge of Lake Okeechobee.

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz made the announcement, Friday, in response to public outcry over the decision to give Publix sole vaccine distribution rights in Palm Beach County.

The AP reports, that's left rural residents in Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay isolated because the nearest Publix supermarket location is more than 25 miles away.

The Belle Glade vaccine site is set to receive 5,000 doses, which is about the number of people 65 and older living in those communities.

COVID-19 Misinformation Spurred By Social Media

There’s a lot of information about COVID-19 on social media platforms, but not all of it is accurate.

According to University of South Florida Associate Public Affairs Professor Stephen Neely, social media has created a situation where people head deeper into “echo chambers” of information. Part of it is human behavior, another part is the platforms' algorithms to "custom-curate" feeds.

Neely was the lead researcher on a recent survey focusing on misinformation, social media, and the politicization of the pandemic.

About three-quarters of those surveyed say they rely on social media to get at least a little of their information about coronavirus. Almost half say they use it "a lot."

“The kind of interesting paradox here is that while people are heavily reliant on social media, a majority of us or majority of folks are saying that they don't trust the information they see there, particularly about COVID-19,” said Neely.

He said only about one-third of the people surveyed said they were "very confident" in the accuracy of the COVID-19 information they found on social media.

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Verónica Zaragovia
Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.
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.
Susan Giles Wantuck is our midday news host, and a producer and reporter for WUSF Public Media who focuses her storytelling on arts, culture and history.