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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 1,700 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 1,910,921 infections. The Florida Department of Health has also reported 147 more coronavirus-related deaths since Saturday, increasing the statewide death toll to 31,556 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management dropped to 8.73% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 6.76% and 9.81%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of Tuesday morning the number of patients admitted to hospitals throughout the state with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 has dropped to 3,666.

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 Monday afternoon that 76 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals, which is down from 82 patients last Thursday. Currently 68% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 19% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 9 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 14 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the state Division of Emergency Management reports more than three million (3,034,636) people have been vaccinated including more than 1.3 million (1,343,423) people who have received a first dose, and more than 1.6 million (1,691,213) who have completed the series with two doses.

Florida COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility Expands

Florida's COVID-19 vaccine eligibility is growing. On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis expanded a previous executive order to provide vaccine access to teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers 50 and older, beginning Wednesday.

DeSantis said Florida expect to receive 175,000 doses of the newly FDA-approved single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine this week.

“We probably could do all of that 50+, K-12 personnel, and Police/Fire with just our J&J shipment,” said DeSantis.

The governor has also opened vaccine eligibility to people under 65 deemed extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus due to a medical condition through doctors' offices and pharmacies. Previously, this younger high-risk demographic could only get vaccinated through hospitals.

DeSantis’ expanded order does not include a list of medical conditions that would apply, leaving that decision to doctors. Lee Health, which has been getting about 1,000 vaccine doses a week, is using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to identify people with high-risk medical conditions.

The CDC list includes people with cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, compromised immune systems due to solid organ transplants, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, Type 2 diabetes as well as smokers.

The Naples Daily News reports the Lee Health and NCH hospital systems are urging residents not to call hospital switchboards to inquire about eligibility, as it inundates phone lines making it difficult for others to contact their healthcare providers.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine has about a 70% efficacy rate for preventing COVID-19 infections, but is 100% effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization. DeSantis urges people not to fear the efficacy rate.

“J&J is value added. If you have an option; Maybe you have your heart set on Pfizer. If someone offers you a J&J, my recommendation would be to take the J&J,” said DeSantis.

As part of the federal retail pharmacy program, vaccines will now be available at select CVS pharmacies. Two are located in Southwest Florida: One in Naples and one in Clewiston. The appointments went very quickly last week, but the stores expect to receive more doses.

As of late last week, the Publix grocery store chain had expanded COVID-19 vaccine distribution to all of its 730 locations throughout Florida that have pharmacies. Vaccine appointments can only be made through the online reservation system publix.com/covidvaccine.

As long as doses are available, Publix usually opens the appointment reservation system at 7 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Criticism Grows Against Manatee Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh Over Vaccine Priority List

Criticism is growing against Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh related to a state-run pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic last month in Lakewood Ranch. The clinic was limited to residents of two affluent, conservative and mostly white zip codes.

Baugh included herself, two former neighbors, and developer and political supporter Rex Jensen and his father on a list of people she wanted prioritized to receive the vaccine through the clinic, bypassing the county's lottery system.

The Herald Tribune reports Ellenton attorney Jennifer Hamey has filed a complaint against Baugh with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging Baugh violated a state statute related to misuse of public position.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office is investigating a separate complaint against Baugh related to the incident. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried wrote a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Monday, calling on him to suspend Baugh.

Lawmakers Learn About Failure Of Unemployment Benefits System Amid Pandemic
Lawmakers are hearing from state officials who say Florida's unemployment processing system is antiquated and needs to be replaced.

The AP reports, on Monday, members of the Legislative Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response heard about the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's review, which finds the system is full of glitches and that it was incapable of handling the surge of jobless benefit applications filed amid last year's pandemic-induced economic shutdown.

Governor Ron DeSantis has called Florida's unemployment benefits claim system an “old jalopy” breaking down on the Daytona 500.

The report makes clear that the system was not prepared or appropriately responsive to impacts of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

DeSantis On Federal Money: "Don’t Reward States That Had Less Success"

Gov. Ron DeSantis is criticizing a federal pandemic bill he says doesn’t give Florida a “fair share.” DeSantis is angry the proposal calculates benefits according to unemployment rates, instead of population. He argues that penalizes the state for having a low unemployment rate in a pandemic:

“Don’t reward the states that had less success in saving their economies and putting people back to work,” said DeSantis.

Congress is moving closer to approving a $1.9 trillion spending bill that includes $1,400-per-person stimulus checks to families earning under $150,000 a year and individuals earning less than $75,000 a year. The bill also carries pandemic relief money for states and local governments. DeSantis’ budget proposal includes federal dollars, although House and Senate leaders have expressed skepticism about relying on it.

Epidemiologist predicts COVID Surge In Florida This Spring Because of UK Variant

An epidemiologist is warning that he expects another coronavirus surge in Florida this spring because of a combination of factors. The more contagious U.K. variant could become the dominant strain in Florida unless more is done to stop it.

According to the CDC, Florida leads the nation in the number of cases of the more contagious “U.K. variant” of the coronavirus.

Senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding said cases of the original coronavirus strain are decreasing, but the more contagious variant could lead to a spike in cases.

“It’s declining overall, but the more contagious one is becoming more and more popular and it might become dominant by mid-March,” said Dr. Feigl-Ding.

“It could completely replace the old strain by probably April or May. And that is when we’re going to see a new surge — probably in April or May.”

Dr. Feigl-Ding said another factor that could lead to a Florida COVID-19 surge is that Gov. Ron DeSantis refuses to take statewide mitigation efforts, like requirements for wearing masks and a halt to indoor dining. He also recommends genetic sequencing to better track variants.

Governor DeSantis’ office did not respond to an interview request.

Lawmakers Take Up COVID Legal Liability Protection Measure

With Florida's annual legislative session kicking off Tuesday, state lawmakers are fast-tracking a proposal to protect Florida businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits. However, shielding the state’s long-term care industry at the same time is proving to be more difficult.

The extent of the liability protections, and whether all long-term care facilities should be shielded from lawsuits, are some of the issues that lawmakers will have to consider.

The House and Senate have unveiled different proposals to protect nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other health care providers from COVID-19 related litigation. Vice President of Public Policy and Legal Affairs for the Florida Senior Living Association, Jason Hand said the ongoing pandemic remains the top issue for assisted living facility operators.

““When we talk to a representative or senator, and they say ‘What is your number one concern?’, Our number one concern is COVID, our number two concern is COVID, our number three concern is COVID. I mean, it’s COVID. That’s what we care about.”

However, personal injury attorney Alexander Clem feels lawmakers don’t need to pass any legislation to protect nursing homes and other providers from lawsuits.

“Just provide quality care. Just take care of your residents. Just follow the rules that are set forth by the federal and state standards. If you do that, and provide appropriate staffing levels, if you do all those things, guess what? You won’t have a lawsuit. There is your immunity,” said Clem.

Governor Ron DeSantis has said a fear of lawsuits is the reason some long-term care facility operators continue to restrict visitation rights.

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