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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 4,113 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, bringing Florida's total to 1,872,923 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 159 coronavirus-related deaths, Feb. 22, increasing the statewide death toll over the 30,000-mark to 30,595 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management decreased to 7.43% on Thursday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 7.43% and 10.47%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning the number of patients admitted to hospitals throughout the state with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 has dropped to 4,181.

Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 279 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19. Florida's drop in COVID hospitalizations mirrors a national trend.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 84 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals, which is down from 100 patients last Thursday.

Currently 75% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 19% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 5 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 16 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

Nearly 1.4 million people in Florida have completed the COVID-19 vaccine series with two doses.

Crist Calls For DOJ Investigation Of DeSantis’ Choice For Vaccination Sites

Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing backlash after selecting an affluent area in Manatee County for a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site that handed out 3,000 doses.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues rising, with many people on county waitlists to receive the vaccine. This has left some asking why one of the areas in Manatee County with the lowest number of infections received the vaccines first.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is accusing DeSantis of using the vaccine sites to further his agenda, while not caring about others affected by the pandemic.

In a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, the Pinellas County Democrat called out DeSantis for making Lakewood Ranch a vaccination site.

Crist pointed out -- without naming him -- that Lakewood Ranch’s parent company is owned by Dick Uihlein, who contributed $900,000 to DeSantis’ campaign in 2018 and 2019.

Crist, who is considering running for governor again, added that DeSantis had not made the right choices for Florida’s citizens.

“Time and time again, Governor DeSantis has proven he is not up to the task of leading our state out of this pandemic as he continues to play politics with the health and well-being of vulnerable Floridians,” he said.

“So far, over 30,000 Floridians have died, and at least 1.8 million more have gotten sick, with minority communities and seniors hit the hardest. Instead of prioritizing people most at risk, the Governor has chosen – during the worst pandemic in a century – to help out his friends and donors. That is why I’m calling on the Department of Justice to investigate.”

While being questioned by reporters last Wednesday, DeSantis threatened to distribute the vaccines elsewhere.

“Anyone in Manatee [County], if they don’t want us doing it, then just tell us, and we’ll make sure that we send those doses to folks who want it,” he said.

DeSantis also said the choice resulted from his plan to get doses out to Florida’s senior population first, adding that Manatee County was running behind other counties in terms of the percentage of vaccinated seniors.

“There was no choice to pick certain ZIP codes,” DeSantis said. “We wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living there. And this (Lakewood Ranch) obviously has a high concentration. You look at all these different communities, and there’s a lot of senior citizens.”

However, the choice for a site started when DeSantis reached out to Rex Jensen, the CEO of Lakewood Ranch’s development company and a contributor to the governor’s campaign.

Jensen got in touch with Manatee County Commission chairwoman Vanessa Baugh, who chose to give the doses to members of only two ZIP codes — 34202 and 34211. The areas, which are in Baugh’s district, are among the richest and whitest communities in the county.

The set-up also skipped the county’s existing random lottery system.

Dr. Marissa Levine, with the University of South Florida College of Public Health, told The Daily Beast that “there weren’t any ethics here, and it was much more a matter of who you know.”

“It would have been better for DeSantis to take those doses and put them back in the existing [lottery system]. That is the more equitable way.”

Baugh also asked organizers to put herself, Jensen, his father, and two of her former neighbors on the list to receive vaccinations.

Baugh apologized at a public meeting last week, saying she wasn’t trying to move them to the front of the line, only making sure they were on the county’s list.

However, everyone on Baugh's list -- except her -- was offered a vaccination appointment.

Federal Mass Vaccination Clinics Coming To Florida

Four federal mass vaccination clinic sites are being established in Florida. A White House news release, Friday, said Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa were chosen as locations for the new Community Vaccine Centers based on their proximity to vulnerable populations.

The AP reports, officials said once in operation, the four federal vaccination centers will have the capacity to give a combined total of up to 12,000 doses a day.

Specific locations will include Miami-Dade Community College, TGT Poker & Racebook in Tampa, Valencia Community College in Orlando and Gateway Town Center in Jacksonville.

City of Sarasota Mask Order To Expire Thursday

A mandatory mask order in the city of Sarasota will end later this month. The Herald Tribune reports, city commissioners voted this week not to further extend an emergency order requiring mask wearing for another 60 days. That means Sarasota's mask mandate will end Feb. 25.

The vote comes against the advice of local medical experts with the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Instead, city commissioners voted unanimously to have a resolution drafted that would encourage people to wear masks, similar to what's been adopted by Sarasota County Commissioners.

Collier County has a mask mandate in effect through high season until April 13. Lee County has no mask mandate.

Enforcement of the mask mandates statewide remains difficult because of an executive order issued by Governor Ron DeSantis in October that prevents local governments from imposing fines on people who violate a mask order. DeSantis' order does not prevent local municipalities from imposing fines on businesses that violate local mask mandates.

Florida House Likely to Quickly Pass COVID-19 Business Liability Bill

The Florida House has scheduled two floor sessions during the first week of this year’s legislative session and the chamber plans to quickly pass a bill that would provide COVID-19 liability protections to businesses.

The proposal would help shield businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19. Under the House measure, businesses would need to show they tried to substantially comply with public-health recommendations or guidelines that were in effect at the time a plaintiff suffered damages, injury or death, to qualify for legal immunity.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, said it’s important for the COVID liability legislation to be among the first to pass during the 60-day legislative session, which begins March 2.

“Making sure that people who were going about it, kind of the right way, trying to do the right thing for their customers and employees, don’t get blindsided by a frivolous lawsuit, while making sure that if somebody is doing the wrong thing, that they are still held accountable,” said Sprowls.

Opponents of the measure argue it essentially creates blanket immunity for Florida businesses, shielding too many companies from potential lawsuits.

Similar legislation in the Florida Senate has two more committee hearings before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Lawmakers Consider Reining in Executive Powers

Florida lawmakers could look to rein in executive powers, such as those Governor Ron DeSantis has used during the COVID-19 pandemic on issues such as business shutdowns.

Supporters say the concern is the potential actions of future governors.

Early on during the pandemic, DeSantis issued a host of executive orders which included closing schools, shutting down indoor dining at restaurants, shuttering bars and limiting visitation to nursing homes.

In recent months, Florida’s economy has generally reopened as DeSantis has lifted many restrictions.

While saying DeSantis has done an excellent job over the past year, Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, plans to file a proposal in the coming weeks that would require the Florida Cabinet to approve of another shutdown, before it could happen.

Brandes wonders what would have happened if a different person was in the governor’s mansion.

“What if Governor DeSantis’ opponent, Andrew Gillum, had won this race? Would we be in shutdowns similar to California and New York? Would we have devastated the economy similar to them, based on one person’s opinion?” said DeSantis.

Legislative leaders seem to agree. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, said emergency actions are designed for short-term emergencies, like hurricanes and other disasters, not a year-long pandemic.

“We have to plan that this is part of our life, and we need to figure out if this happens again, what is the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch during a pandemic that goes on a considerable period of time?” said Brandes.

Lawmakers worry a different governor in the future may lock down the state for other reasons, if given unchecked power.

FL Senate Considers Cutting Restrictions on Telemedicine

Across Florida, the coronavirus pandemic has paved the way to greater access to healthcare through telehealth. A bill moving through the state Senate would help to keep that going even after the Pandemic ends. Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, is behind the measure.

“The bill would address three key areas of telemedicine practice in Florida. Those three areas are: it would allow Medicaid to reimburse store-and-forward and remote monitoring. It ends technology restrictions of telehealth, for instance it would open up texting options where applicable or desired,” said Rodriguez.

“And lastly it authorizes tele pharmacy for prescription services.”

Rodriguez said under her bill, using telehealth would be voluntary. Nobody could be required to use telehealth services rather receiving regular, in-person medical care.

Study: Drive-Thru Clinics Safest, Most Efficient Method For Mass Vaccination

Researchers in Oklahoma looked at swine flu vaccine data to find the best way to distribute the coronavirus vaccine.

The answer appears to be the way most vaccines are being done in Florida: drive-thru clinics.

Scientists from Oklahoma State University and Vanderlande Industries used data from the swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, to model a pathway for safer, more efficient coronavirus vaccinations.

“A vaccine is a vaccine,” said Sunderesh Heragu, one of the study’s authors. For our modeling purposes, it doesn't matter whether it's a vaccine for H1N1, or whether it's a Moderna vaccine for COVID-19.”

Heragu says drive-thru clinics in the parking lots of large retail stores and stadiums make it feasible to administer 350 million vaccinations in 100 days. That's 200 million more than President Joe Biden pledged.

So, in one stadium parking lot, with five tents, you can vaccinate 1,000 people per hour. In an eight- to 10-hour period, that’s 10,000 vaccinations per day, per site. There are 20 cities with a population of 750,000 or more. There are 350 cities with a population of 100,000 to 750,000.

Of course, that is assuming it’s a 7-day-a-week operation and there are enough supplies, nurses and people to administer vaccines. There would also need to be adequate freezer storage for the vaccines, not to mention the logistical and traffic nightmare of scheduling 10,000 vaccines at one site per day.

Drive-thru vaccination is quicker, safer, and less confusing, Herugu said. Plus, it’s just more convenient for the average person who is used to commuting to work or grabbing fast food.

"I think people kind of prefer, you know, being their car because they're used to it already," he said "You know, that's how they get their breakfast sometimes and order coffee, or do their dry cleaning."

He notes that walk up clinics should not be eliminated entirely. People with certain disabilities - or who take public transportation - rely on those to get vaccinated.

Canadian Visitors Face Tougher Restrictions Returning Home

Canadian snowbirds wrapping up their Florida vacations face tougher COVID-19 screening measures in their home country.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reports that starting Monday, Feb. 22, once Canadian travelers arrive back home, they must stay in government-approved hotels at their own expense for three days until they receive the results of a COVID-19 test.

If driving back to Canada, they must show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test at the border.

Canadians who fail to follow these protocols could be fined up to $3,000.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

Devonta Davis
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Daylina Miller, multimedia reporter for Health News Florida, was hired to help further expand health coverage statewide.