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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 3,312 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total 1,948,307 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 81 coronavirus-related deaths March 8, increasing the statewide death toll to 32,349 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management increased to 8.66% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 6.64% and 9.84%.

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 3,321.

Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 236 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, which is up from 299 patients last Thursday.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 64 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. Currently 74% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 23% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 3 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 9 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the State Division of Emergency Management reported more than 3.59 million (3,590,686) people have been vaccinated including more than 1.6 million (1,631,196) people who have received a first dose, and more than 1.9 million (1,946,615) who have completed the series with two doses. 12,875 people in Florida have received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Vaccinations to Start for People 60 and Over On Monday

After focusing for more than two months on vaccinating seniors against COVID-19, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday the state will authorize giving shots to all people ages 60 and older.

The change will take effect next Monday, March 15, and was announced after more than 2.64 million people ages 65 and older have been vaccinated. DeSantis made his announcement during a news conference at the state capitol.

“As the demand has softened a little bit, as fortunately more than 50% of seniors in almost all of our major counties have received at least one shot, we will open it up to 60 to 64 as well,” said DeSantis.

Through Sunday, slightly more than 3.59 million Floridians had been vaccinated, with seniors making up almost 74%of that total, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.

Last month, DeSantis announced that teachers and law-enforcement officers ages 50 and older would be eligible for shots. That was followed last week by President Biden’s administration issuing a directive that made all teachers eligible.

Ag Commissioner Fried Criticizes DeSantis’ Vaccine Rollout/DeSantis Criticizes Federal Stimulus Plan

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried said, Monday, the state should make it easier for residents to prove they are medically vulnerable and eligible for a vaccine.

People who are medically vulnerable need to have a form filled out by their physician showing they qualify for the vaccine. During a press conference in Tallahassee, Monday Fried said that is too restrictive.

“Let an individual come up and show you their prescription. Let them show you a doctor’s note or let them show you different types of forms of medical history or other types of medical bills,” said Fried.

“That way, more and more people can actually have access to these vaccines and prove that they are medically vulnerable, and not have to get a note from their doctor.”

Fried also criticized Gov. DeSantis over the vaccine rollout. She was joined at the press conference by State Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, who called for more transparency in how vaccines are distributed.

“And so it is so critically important that we take the necessary steps to be transparent. We have a hodge-podge of outcomes, because we have miscommunication, misinformation,” said Alexander.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis used his media appearance, Monday, to rail against the latest $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package.

DeSantis said the measure rewards states that continue to struggle with the pandemic and penalizes states like Florida where officials reopened the economy relatively quickly. DeSantis is calling on the federal government to revise its distribution model, arguing that money should be allocated on a per-capita basis.

Public Health Expert Weighs In On Decision To Expand Vaccine Age Eligibility

Public health experts are celebrating the vaccine expansion, but still some acknowledge it may not make everyone happy. Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to use age as the driving factor for his decisions about vaccine eligibility, saying older people are more likely to die from COVID-19.

University of South Florida Public Health Professor Jay Wolfson said other groups of people also deserve consideration, like grocery store employees who are more likely to be exposed to the virus or young people who are the biggest spreaders.

However, he said he’s not surprised DeSantis is prioritizing older adults.

“This is a very senior-rich state, so I think there's a political part of it. There's an optics part of it and there's the reality that the at-risk population tended to be, for dying, the elderly,” said Wolfson.

The governor said he'll continue to use five-year age brackets to expand eligibility moving forward.

Lawmakers Weigh Changes To State Unemployment System, Benefits; Deloitte Stands By CONNECT

Florida’s CONNECT unemployment benefits system failed to connect to much of anything in the early days of the pandemic, leaving millions of recently laid-off Floridians in the cold. The company that built it, Deloitte, has worked to distance itself from the system and is a defendant in a lawsuit against the state. Now, a new state audit reveals the problems go deeper than previously thought and lawmakers are weighing how to fix the system.

In testimony Monday in the legislature's joint Pandemic Response Committee, representatives of Deloitte— the company that built the state’s flawed unemployment benefits system—say they did what they were asked by the state and don’t know what happened to the system after they handed it off. The last time Deloitte had a hand in the Connect system was in 2015. Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo says lawmakers may never know what happened to cause the failures seen early in the pandemic.

“You haven’t touched this in six years," he said to the company's officials, "But I can’t blame you…The site you delivered? It wasn’t that great, it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t battle-tested... But I do think you got away with launching something that wasn’t ready.”

Florida spent $78 million to modernize CONNECT in 2013. It was plagued by cost overruns and delays. What did the state get for it? According to preliminary findings by the state auditor general, a whole lot of nothing. The report’s findings show the Connect system was never properly tested to see whether it could handle more than about 2,000 claims.

"It’s like buying an iPhone in 2013 and never updating the iOS program or bothering to buy a new iPhone in the process," Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle recently told a legislative panel.

Eagle told lawmakers the cost to scrap CONNECT and rebuild it would cost more than $70 over two years.

“I liken this to taking the system we had, taking parts that worked, trashing the rest…and come up with something completely new. I liken this to what Space X has done with its shuttle program…they use pieces from the former shuttle program. So we would be using a completely new system, but recycling pieces from the past," he said.

During the hearing Democrats asked whether expanding who qualifies for unemployment is part of considerations. Eagle said no.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls has suggested the Connect benefits system isn’t the only thing lawmakers need to be looking at. He’s called for a deep dive into the local workforce agencies that are supposed to be helping people find new jobs, and the OTHER state website, Employee Florida—which is supposed to be doing the same. Speaking to reporters in February Sprowls questioned why CONNECT can’t connect to Employ Florida?

“I think we need to look at how we do this… You know, if you’re going to apply for unemployment you go to one website. If you want to look for a job navigated by the state, you go to another site. Why are we making it so difficult?” he asked.

Also talking unemployment is Senate President Wilton Simpson, who has an eye toward raising the state’s unemployment benefit. Currently, it sits at $275 a week for 12 weeks. That’s among the lowest of any state.

"I’m willing to embrace an increase," Simpson told reporters on the first day of the legislative session. "When you think about a $15/hr. minimum wage at 40 hours, that’s a $600/week gross pay. I think that, in that format, we need to take a serious look at bringing that $275 up to something higher than that.”

He didn’t name a price. Democrats recently floated raising the benefit to $500 dollars a week. But Sprowls believes that shouldn’t be part of considerations for now. Businesses pay unemployment taxes, he says, and raising those benefits could mean raising costs for businesses that are still trying to recover from the pandemic.

“You can want the businesses not to be taxed out of business, especially when they’re in bad shape. You can also want to make sure people can feed their families…when they’re unemployed. It’s not that those things are mutually exclusive. But it’s a balancing act that we constantly have to engage in to make sure we have the job creators…are able to do what we hope they’ll do which is continue to prosper and create jobs.”

Florida’s CONNECT unemployment site was built during former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and Gov. Ron DeSantis believes it was designed to fail—an effort to dissuade people from trying to gain benefits. He’s called the system a “jalopy”.

Caridad Center CEO Calling On Governor To Prioritize Vaccines For Migrant Farmworkers

Elected officials and advocates in Palm Beach County say the state should prioritize vaccines for the farmworker community. They say Gov. Ron DeSantis should use free clinics across the state to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to these vulnerable workers.

Laura Kallus is CEO of the Caridad Center in Boynton Beach. It’s a free medical clinic that treats migrant farmworkers.

Kallus says migrant farmworkers often leave their families to travel north to follow the crops, which makes them especially vulnerable. The decision not to include them in vaccine prioritization is a "slap in the face."

"We depend on them for our most basic needs during this whole pandemic," Kallus said. "And their reward is what? Low wages. No healthcare. No insurance. No benefits. And now no vaccines?”

Agriculture is Florida’s second largest industry behind tourism. And Palm Beach County ranked first in the state for agricultural sales. In 2017, the state ranked third in the U.S for agricultural exports, totaling $4 billion.

Kallus says a lack of computers, proper documentation, and medical trust are just some of the major issues affecting access to quality care and vaccinations for migrant farmworkers.

She is calling on Gov. DeSantis to utilize the network of free and charitable clinics across the state to help with vaccinations and launch proper educational outreach programs.

“They don’t have the documentation you [DeSantis] require. They don’t have the time and the resources to sit on the internet to register for these,” Kallus said. “So use Community Health Workers. Use your free clinics who already know how to serve and reach this population. It seems like a no brainer to me.”

Kallus says the Caridad Center serves more than 5,000 farmworkers from several racial and ethnic groups. From Central Americans, Mexicans, and indigenous migrant groups to ethnic groups from the Caribbean — they're all people living "200 percent or below the federal poverty level," who live in Palm Beach County, and "have no [health] insurance."

The county’s test positivity rate hovers around 6%. Kallus says the farmworker and day labor community hovers around 14%.

Kallus says the center has been able to vaccinate their eligible volunteer doctors through the county's health department, but there are flexibility issues surrounding documentation for migrants to get the vaccines.

The center continues to do COVID-19 case management for patients who’ve tested positive for the virus. Kallus says she'd like to see more uniformity in the vaccine distribution process from the state, because local efforts need more support.

"We partnered with faith-based initiatives to try to get vaccines at Caridad Center and to utilize all of the churches that we partner with to do that," Kallus said. "But we're waiting to see what kind of restrictions they're [the state] going to put on us in terms of who we get to vaccinate."

Vaccines Ramp Up In Sarasota/Manatee as Infection Rates in Schools Hold Steady

Cases of COVID-19 in schools in Manatee and Sarasota Counties remained steady last week, with new infection rates remaining much lower than they were where in January after students returned from winter break.

The Herald Tribune reports, the Sarasota County School District last week, documented 45 students and 14 staff members who tested positive for the coronavirus. Since Sarasota schools reopened last August, the district has seen 1,450 COVID-19 cases.

As of Friday, the district surpassed 10,000 students and 751 staff members who have had to quarantine.

In Manatee County schools last week, the district reported four new staff cases of COVID-19 and 28 student cases. That's on par with what the district was experiencing last fall, when far fewer students were engaged in in-person learning.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccine appointments are ramping up in Manatee and Sarasota Counties. The Herald Tribune reports, a vaccine clinic at the Venice Municipal Airport Festival Fairgrounds gave out about 5,000 vaccine doses last Sunday with about 6,000 more appointments planned for early this week at Sarasota Square Mall.

In Manatee County, about 9,600 vaccine appointments are set for this week and a new FEMA-run site will begin offering doses this week at the Manatee Public Safety Center in Bradenton. The county's first vaccine clinic site at Bennett Park is also set to provide some 5,100 inoculations this week.

Florida Averages 100K Vaccine Doses Per Day In Last Week: A New High Mark

Florida had its best week yet for COVID-19 vaccines, last week. Florida has given 75% of the 7.7 million doses delivered by the federal government.

Enough inoculations took place in Florida last week to AVERAGE more than 100,000 doses per day.

That marks the first time the state has hit that bar, as vaccine distribution drops dramatically on weekends. Overall, almost 10% of Florida’s population has been fully vaccinated and 21.5% of Florida’s adults have gotten at least one shot.

The record numbers came the same week four federally-operated mass vaccination sites opened across the state in Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando.

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis relented to pressure and began allowing all K-12 educational personnel to get vaccinated, regardless of age. The state also began allowing medically vulnerable residents to get vaccinated with a physician’s certification.

Coronavirus-related Fraud Cases Surge

Authorities report a surge in fraud cases amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and many target seniors and other vulnerable populations.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, fraud cost Americans $3.3 billion last year, which is up from $1.9 billion the previous year.

During a Consumer Protection Virtual Forum, Friday, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-New Port Richey, said some scammers are using social media to target potential victims. He urges big tech platforms to help users stay protected against fraud.

“If consumers know what to look for, they will be better equipped to avoid scams,” said Bilirakis.

The top three scams in 2020 were identity theft, imposter scams, and online shopping fraud.

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Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Matt Peddie
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.
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
Wilkine Brutus
Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.
Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.