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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 7,087 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday, for a total of 1,885,661 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 127 coronavirus-related deaths, Feb. 24, increasing the statewide death toll to 30,878 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 7.55% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 7.44% and 9.62%.

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 4,073. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 270 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Wednesday afternoon that 82 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals, which is down from 100 patients last Thursday.

Currently 74% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 12% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 7 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 7 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Wednesday morning, the state Division of Emergency Management reports 2,792,118 people have been vaccinated including 1,299,609 people who have received a first dose, and 1,492,509 who have completed the series with two doses.

Florida Officials Expect Surge in COVID-19 Vaccine Doses In The Coming Weeks

Governor Ron DeSantis says Florida will start to see a surge in COVID-19 vaccine supply in the coming weeks.

Speaking in Brooksville Wednesday, DeSantis said he anticipates that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will be reaching Florida soon following the FDA's analysis supporting its authorization for emergency use.

“Floridians, if all goes to plan, you should start seeing Johnson and Johnson sometime next week” DeSantis said. “That's the plan that they are going to do -- approve, they already have some produced and then they are going to send some to the states and we will be ready, willing and able to put that to use.”

DeSantis also says the state’s allotment of Pfizer vaccines will nearly double to 200,000 soon. Federal vaccination sites planned for Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami will add about 80,000 vaccines a week to the state.

DeSantis spoke at a retail pharmacy in Hialeah, Tuesday, saying next steps in Florida's vaccine rollout could include teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers 50 and older.

The News-Press reports that in addition to pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a vaccine dose influx is also the result of shipments that had been delayed last week due to severe winter weather in other parts of the country, the expansion of a federal program providing vaccines through retail pharmacies under the Biden administration and the new federal mass vaccination centers opening next week.

CVS Health begins administering vaccine doses at Florida locations this week, including one site in Naples and one in Clewiston. The appointments, through CVS.com or the CVS Pharmacy app, went very quickly Wednesday.

DeSantis Turns Vaccine Focus To Rural Seniors

Governor Ron DeSantis said earlier this week, he wants to focus on getting more seniors in rural areas of the state vaccinated. He said in some counties the percent of seniors who’ve received the vaccine is well below the state average, but that’s not the case everywhere.

“Some rural counties have done really really well. You look at a place like Gadsden County. They’re above the state average. You look at Wakulla—some of those, but then you look at a place like DeSoto and Hardy and Glades,” said DeSantis.

The Governor said the state is planning a push to target seniors in rural areas. The program will focus on places where a low percentage of seniors have been vaccinated. He said in some counties that number is less than 30%.

Sarasota Advocates Push To Get COVID-19 Vaccines To People Of Color

Only about 1 percent of people vaccinated in Sarasota County are Black. Advocates say the distribution process puts underserved communities at a disadvantage. They're fighting to change that.

Franklin Cochran, 78, sat with his walker outside Light of the World International Church in Sarasota just days after getting hip surgery.

For a few hours last Sunday, the house of worship served a different purpose: a place to vaccinate more than 250 seniors of color against COVID-19.

"I wouldn't miss this," said Cochran, who lives with his wife in the northern part of the county where the church is located, and where a lot of Sarasota's Black residents reside.

“We came out here because we want to live a long time, and this was our best shot right here,” he said.

Prior to the event, more than 71,000 people had been vaccinated in the county. Only 670 — fewer than 1 percent — were Black. Roughly 970 recipients identify as Hispanic.

Hundreds of these residents got their shots at another pop-up clinic hosted by Sarasota Memorial Hospital in January in the Newtown neighborhood.

The numbers suggest the large state- and county-run drive-thru sites aren't serving people of color.

Cochran knows access has been a challenge and said that's why this church site is so important.

“Because Blacks and Hispanics, we catch hell, and that's on every level of society,” he said.

"What's wrong with this picture?"

The event was organized by the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and community groups that had been advocating for it for months, like the Multicultural Health Institute and the Sarasota County NAACP.

Dr. Lisa Merritt, executive director of the institute, said people of color are more likely to face barriers to care and have health conditions that put them at greater risk for severe cases of COVID-19. She said the new variants of the virus making their way through the state heighten concerns.

“These people are sitting ducks, particularly those with chronic health conditions over 65 in high-risk ZIP codes,” Merritt said. “They are more susceptible to the complications that will require hospitalization and possibly very aggressive medical maneuvers, and we want to prevent that.”

Black people account for 9 percent of the county's coronavirus hospitalizations, despite making up less than 5 percent of its population.

Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County NAACP, said state leaders don't seem to be taking that into account when distributing vaccines in the region.

“The underserved communities that have been disproportionately impacted the greatest are looking and saying, ‘Well they're having a special event in Lakewood Ranch — what's going on with that? They're having a special event down in Venice with 3,000-plus vaccinations — what's wrong with this picture?’” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis helped organize the Lakewood Ranch clinic in neighboring Manatee County. It was exclusive to residents living in two mostly-white ZIP codes with some of the highest income levels and lowest coronavirus rates in the area.

DeSantis is facing national criticism and calls for a federal investigation.

Harvey said the governor's actions sent a powerful message.

“It seems like you're setting these things up in communities who have less issues than communities of color, OK, and to us, that shows racial disparities, that shows classic racism,” he said.

Efforts to improve equity

The need to boost vaccination rates in underserved communities is not lost on Chuck Henry, health officer with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.

Before the event at Light of the World International, Henry said he looked at the county’s vaccination rates for Black residents compared to how many Black seniors lived in the county, and said the numbers suggest about 21 percent had been vaccinated.

“Which surprised me, it’s not bad, but when I compare that to my county as a whole, 35 percent of residents over the age of 65 have been vaccinated, so we have that gap between the 35 and the 21, which is concerning,” Henry said.

The latest state data issued Wednesday afternoon showed 861 Black and 1,134 Hispanic people had been vaccinated in Sarasota, out of nearly 78,000 people total. The rates improved marginally from last weekend.

Henry said the department is working on making its vaccination sites more accessible for people who don’t have transportation and that he wants to do more events like the one at the church as more supplies come in. Advocates say they welcome the partnership.

But Henry said logistics and the pressure to get as many seniors vaccinated as fast as possible complicate things.

“We have about 160,000 citizens over the age of 65, so that's about 37 percent of my population,” he said, adding that the statistic does not factor in “snowbirds” who live in the area part time.

Henry said up until recently, Sarasota was only getting a few thousand doses a week. Those would only last a day or two at the county’s mass vaccination site.

Appointments are handled through an online registration system called Everbridge, which is also used to schedule shots at large pop-up events like recent ones held in Venice and Northport.

People can also call in to register by dialing 941-861-VAXS (8297), but some may not know that.

Merritt said many people of color aren’t signing up with the county. Some lack technology, others haven’t been educated about the process.

Merritt led a meeting Wednesday morning with nonprofits and health officials from Sarasota and Manatee counties to talk about next steps in improving equity in the region.

“We know there's a supply issue, but at the same time, if we're getting 4,000 vaccines in, how do we do better at slicing that off and directing it to areas of highest need that have been underserved throughout this process?” she asked the group.

Merritt said leadership needs to be doing culturally sensitive outreach. Her team is calling people directly and going into neighborhoods with iPads to help them register for vaccines. Some team members speak multiple languages.

She also wants to figure out a way to flag people in the county system who are especially high-risk so they can get protection sooner. A representative with the health department could not say whether that was possible but did say there may be opportunities to identify underserved ZIP codes and do targeted efforts in those areas.

Merritt knows there's a lot of work to do but said there needs to be a greater sense of urgency because for some people it's a matter of life and death.

Law Enforcement Investigation Opened Into Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Over Vaccine Distribution

The Manatee County Sheriff's office is investigating whether County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh broke the law by giving priority for COVID-19 vaccine doses to friends and a political ally.

Baugh and Governor Ron DeSantis are facing criticism over a state-run vaccine pop-up site last week that restricted doses to residents of two zip codes in predominantly white, affluent and Republican neighborhoods in Lakewood Ranch.

Baugh sent an email to Manatee County's Public Safety Director with the names of people she wanted to receive the vaccine at that clinic, including herself, two former neighbors, and Rex Jensen and his father. Rex Jensen is the CEO of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee-Ranch, which has donated to political campaigns of Baugh and DeSantis.

Baugh overcame a vote, Tuesday, to remove her as commission chair as about 40 protesters demonstrated outside the Manatee County Administration building calling on her to resign. Baugh said last week that she does not intend to resign.

The Herald Tribune reports, the law enforcement investigation stems from a complaint filed by Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield alleging that Baugh violated state law concerning misuse of public position to secure special privilege. The complaint also say's Baugh's actions could constitute official misconduct.

U.S. Rep. Democrat Charlie Crist is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the matter as well.

Venice Fire Rescue Delivers COVID-19 Vaccine to Homebound Residents

The Venice Fire Rescue Department in Sarasota County is participating in a state pilot program to get COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of people who are homebound.

The Herald Tribune reports, on Tuesday, Venice Fire Rescue Chief Shawn Carvey updated City Council members about the effort, that has involved paramedics inoculating 10-20 people per day for the past two weeks.

Eligible recipients include people who are confined to wheelchairs, for example, or who are too severely immunocompromised to visit a vaccine distribution site.

The doses Venice Fire Rescue paramedics have been using come from the supply of 1,500 doses per week that Governor Ron DeSantis has set aside for the pilot program.

Chief Carvey said his department is requesting more doses, as Venice Fire Rescue looks to expand its efforts to reach homebound residents.

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.

Julio Ochoa is editor of Health News Florida.
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.