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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 6,118 new COVID-19 cases, Thursday, for a total 1,930,232 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 120 coronavirus-related deaths March 4, increasing the statewide death toll to 31,955 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management dropped to 6.8% on Wednesday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 5.2% and 6.91%.

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 3,527. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 299 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Thursday afternoon that 60 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals...that's down from 76 patients Monday.

Currently 72% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 9% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 4 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 11 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Wednesday morning, the State Division of Emergency Management reports more than 3.1 million (3,174,162) people have been vaccinated including more than 1.4 million (1,400,524) people who have received a first dose, and more than 1.7 million (1,773,638) who have completed the series with two doses.

DeSantis: CVS, Other Sites Will Offer Vaccines To K-12 School Employees Regardless Of Age

Gov. Ron DeSantis announcement comes after CVS Pharmacy said it would follow President Joe Biden's less restrictive directive to vaccinate school employees regardless of age.

On Monday, DeSantis expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to school employees aged 50 or older, as well as firefighters and police.

But on Thursday at a Crystal River vaccination site, the governor said national pharmacies like CVS and federally-run vaccination sites will give the vaccine to school employees regardless of age, as well as daycare and preschool workers.

This comes a day after CVS Pharmacy announced it'd be following President Joe Biden's less restrictive directive.

It began offering vaccines to all teachers and school staff this week. Other sites in the federal pharmacy program include Publix, Winn-Dixie, Walmart, Walgreens and Sam’s Club.

“What the federal government has done is said anybody that works in the school system, regardless of age,” DeSantis said. “So they're able to go and these federal pharmacy sites and the federal site - you're 22, and you're a teacher, you can go get it.”

DeSantis said national pharmacies and federally sites can do that, but his focus is still on vaccinating seniors.

“I'm not opposed to someone 20. 22 getting a vaccine,” DeSantis said. “But if we want to save lives, we need to get all the seniors and so that's going to be our priority. That said, the federal government issued that directive."

It's unclear whether state-run sites will be allowed to vaccinate teachers regardless of age.

DeSantis Predicts Fewer Than 50% Of Residents Under 50 Will Get Coronavirus Vaccine

Gov. Ron DeSantis predicts that fewer than half of Florida residents under 50 will get vaccinated against COVID-19 when they become eligible.

However, inoculating younger residents will be essential to truly crushing the coronavirus.

The governor says he expects a much lower turnout among 25-year-olds than 75-year-olds, who are more likely to get seriously ill.

“I mean, honestly, that’s sensible because the risk is much different in those,” he said during a press conference in Crystal River.

Dr. Michael Lauzardo, Deputy Director of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, said focusing on seniors makes a lot of sense early on while vaccines are limited.

But that addresses the consequences, not the source of the pandemic.

“Almost 75 percent of transmission, in other words, the spread of COVID, is from people in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” he said. “So until we start vaccinating people under the age of 50, we’re not really having a big impact on the transmission or spread.”

Just protecting the most vulnerable, he says, is, quote, “a false choice” that will leave the pandemic unchecked.

Fried Calls For Federal Inquiry Into Vaccine Access For The Wealthy

After learning that residents of the ultra-wealthy Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo received coronavirus vaccines in early January — well before most Floridians had a chance to sign up for the shot — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is renewing calls for a federal investigation into vaccine access in Florida.

The Miami Herald reported that "almost all" the residents of Ocean Reef who are 65 and older received the vaccine at the exclusive community's medical center. The Herald also reported that 17 residents donated $5,000 each to Gov. Ron DeSantis' political committee and that one of them, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, sent $250,000 in late February.

On Thursday, Fried called for the FBI to investigate how that happened and said consumers are not being treated fairly.

"The fact pattern is simply just too clear to avoid. Give campaign contribution big dollars, get special access to vaccines. Ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farm workers," Fried said.

At a Thursday press conference, DeSantis dismissed the Herald story as a "poorly executed hit piece." He said the Ocean Reef vaccinations came through a hospital system, not the state. But he said he was glad the residents got the shots.

"My view is, if you're 65 and up, I'm not worried about your income bracket, I'm worried about your age bracket," he said.

A complaint filed with the Manatee County Sheriff's office and another filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics accuse Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh of violating a state statute related to misuse of public position. Last month, Baugh sent an email calling for VIP list of people to bypass the county's vaccine appointment lottery system. The list included herself, two former neighbors and developer and political supporter Rex Jensen and his father. Jensen has been a financial supporter of Baugh and DeSantis' political campaigns.

The incident is related to a state-run pop-up vaccine clinic in Manatee County that was restricted to residents of two zip codes in a largely white, affluent and politically conservative area. Commissioner Fried wrote to Governor DeSantis earlier this week calling on Baugh to be suspended and Florida U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

Florida DOH Releases Vaccine Form For People Extremely Vulnerable To COVID-19

The Florida Department of Health, on Wednesday, put out the form people extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus due to medical condition will need to receive a vaccine.

The Herald Tribune reports, the single-page form is intended for physicians to certify that a patient is at high risk for complications if they contract the virus.

This week, vaccine eligibility in Florida was expanded to include this high-risk demographic, regardless of age.

400 Lee County Teachers To Receive Vaccine At Friday Clinic

The Florida Department of Health in Lee County will be offering COVID-19 vaccine doses to about 400 teachers 50 and older at a pop-up clinic Friday, March 5.

The vaccine clinic reflects the state's recently expanded vaccine eligibility, which as of Wednesday, includes teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers 50 and older.

Pharmacies like CVS and Publix, however, are now honoring the federal government's expanded vaccine guidelines, which now include ANYONE working in K-12 education and daycare centers, and people with medical conditions that make them extremely vulnerable to the virus with NO age restriction.

Friday’s pop up clinic for Lee County teachers, however, is limited to the state-imposed age restrictions.

Report Details Troubles of Florida's Unemployment Benefits System

The Florida agency responsible for handling unemployment benefits faced bomb threats, shooting threats and COVID-19 outbreaks in its offices, last year, as it was overwhelmed with claims amid the pandemic induced economic shutdown.

A draft inspector general's report, released Thursday, details problems with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's unemployment claims system, saying the system was not designed to meet the level of demand caused by the pandemic.

The report also details huge cost overruns when the system was developed under the administration of former Governor Rick Scott. DEO officials have recently recommended switching to a modern, more robust system employing cloud-based technology.

Census Bureau: Majority of Small Businesses Not Requiring Vaccines, Tests

A majority of small businesses in the U.S. are not requiring workers to get tested for COVID-19 or to get a vaccine when they become eligible…That's according to a report released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report finds that 70% of small businesses surveyed say they are not requiring employees to test negative before coming to work, while just 10% said that they are. Nearly 20% of respondents said the question was not applicable.

The AP reports, employers in the health care and hospitality sectors were outliers to that trend with rates higher than the national average.

House Dems introduce COVID Relief Bill Alternative

Democrats in the Florida House of Representatives introduced a wide-ranging COVID-19 bill, Thursday, that offers alternatives to some Republican proposals. The sweeping bill, HB1617 offers protection from evictions, protects some businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, looks to provide more transparency in data reporting and much more.

At 69-pages, House Minority Co-leader Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood and Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Riverview, know the bill is a big ask, but said it offers something for every Floridian.

Jenne said it’s non-partisan in nature and all 37 sections are ripe for picking.

“I’m under no illusion that this bill will be fast-tracked to the floor this session, but that’s not what it’s about. In fact, I would encourage my friends on the other side of the aisle to steal as much of this as possible and put it into some committee bill if necessary.”

Jenne and Learned co-sponsored the bill, but Jenne said Learned did the heavy lifting.

The bill touches on dozens of Florida statutes and covers similar ground to more than 15 other bills in the 2021 session, albeit, with some modifications. Jenne said one such bill is HB7, which offers businesses COVID-related liability protection.

“It is COVID liability protections. It is a different iteration than we see in HB7. We feel it is more fair and more even handed, but we do have COVID liability protections in there.”

Critics have said HB7 lands too heavily on the business side and makes it too difficult for workers or other injured parties to prove negligence or that a business was responsible for a COVID-related loss. HB1617 adds to HB7’s language using rejected amendments from state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, and Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, to ease some of that burden in attempt to even the field, Jenne said.

Overhauls to the State’s unemployment assistance program and website, touching on a bill filed by Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando and Rep. Diamond, are in. Businesses would also be held harmless from unemployment assistance claims that could otherwise cost them.

There’s also language to clear up Florida’s vaccine distribution. Since rollouts began, Florida has been criticized for its “wing-it” approach. Just hours after Learned and Jenne announced the bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis again sewed confusion about the distribution. He said federally run sites and pharmacies would offer vaccines to all teachers, regardless of age.

That countered his own order from last week limiting the age to 50 and above and created confusion at sites. Some school personnel under 50 reported being able to get the vaccine, while others were told the governor would have to change his order. HB1617 would align Florida’s distribution with federal guidelines.

There’s also more protection for renters. Floridians continue to be evicted despite federal moratoriums. Learned said that’s not okay and should go beyond the pandemic.

“And protectors for renters and homeowners alike so we never have to fear eviction during a state of emergency, pandemic or hurricane,” said Learned.

Learned also said much of the bill is aimed at getting Floridians relief, but also preventing shutdowns and economic downturns in the future. That includes a more transparent system for reporting health data to allow Floridians to make more informed choices.

“We’ve made good calls and we’ve missed the mark on some. That’s okay. What happened over these last 12 months has been unprecedented. We need to make Floridians whole. Learn the lessons of 2020 and make sure we seize this opportunity to launch our state out of this pandemic stronger than ever.”

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.

Daylina Miller, multimedia reporter for Health News Florida, was hired to help further expand health coverage statewide.
Joe Byrnes
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.