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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 2,826 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 1,979,634 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 93 coronavirus-related deaths, March 15, increasing the statewide death toll to 32,959 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management increased to 8.89% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 6.34% and 8.89%.

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 3,065. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 229 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 81 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals, compared to 64 patients last Wednesday.

Currently 72% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 14% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 9 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 13 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 4.2 million people have been vaccinated including more than 1.88 million people who have received a first dose, and more than 2.2 million who have completed the series with two doses. More than 90,000 people in Florida have received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

DeSantis Thinks Florida Will Open Vaccine To All Adults Before May 1

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes Florida will beat President Joe Biden’s deadline to open COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to any adult who wants it by May 1.

On Monday, the state lowered the eligibility age from 65 to 60, and DeSantis again said Florida will drop the age to 55 this month.

“The 55 will happen sometime in March, for sure,” DeSantis said. “But I think as we get into April we’ll be looking to do it. So I think it will certainly be before May 1 we’ll be able to open it up to all adults.”

DeSantis said he disagrees with Biden’s messaging that people who are fully vaccinated should still wear masks and maintain social distance.

“I think it’s a little bit odd when you say get the vaccine it’s important, but then nothing changes when you get the vaccine,” DeSantis said. “No, we think the vaccine is good and the whole reason to get the vaccine is to be able to protect yourself and to not have to worry like you’ve had to worry.”

First responders are eligible to get the vaccine, as well as health care workers who have direct contact with patients. And any adult with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 can get vaccinated with a note from a doctor. Anyone working in a school can also get vaccinated, regardless of age.

DeSantis Wants Legislature to Roll Back Local Governments’ Emergency Powers

Governor Ron DeSantis appears to be working to remove mask requirements throughout Florida amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Herald Tribune reports, DeSantis is calling on the GOP-dominated state legislature to roll back local governments' emergency powers.

Democratic lawmakers and some local government officials are critical of the effort, noting that local mask ordinances are especially important since DeSantis has never issued a statewide mask order.

State Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, is sponsoring HB327, which is aimed at limiting local emergency powers like mask orders to no more than 42 days. The proposal cleared a House committee last Tuesday along party lines.

Florida Dismisses COVID-19 Related Fines

Florida is letting people and businesses off the hook if they violated COVID-19 regulations and got a fine. Gov. DeSantis signed an executive order, March 10, that cancels fines for breaking COVID-19 safety rules that local governments administered in the past year.

University of Florida epidemiologist Dr. Cindy Prins said that as spring breakers rage on, people should be mindful about how they're partying whether there's a fine or not.

"Even if you don't perceive yourself as being vulnerable to COVID, you don't know who you're going to spread this to down the line,” said Dr. Prins.

“You have to understand that when you get infected and you transmit it to someone to three people down the line, that person could wind up hospitalized or even die."

People can have no symptoms and spread the virus. That can happen even if they're not elderly and don't consider themselves vulnerable to a serious case of COVID-19.

DeSantis’ order does not do away with fines that local governments gave to assisted living facilities, hospitals or other healthcare providers.

Lawmakers Look To Provide Relief For Floridians Struggling To Pay Their Utility Bill

Amneris Ortiz is a single mom with three kids. She lost her job as a receptionist due to the pandemic and is now unemployed. Ortiz says her utilities got disconnected about three weeks ago.

"My kids they [were] like, 'mom, what happened?' Because they came [home] from school. And I say, 'oh my god, I don't know what I can do right now,'" Ortiz recounts.

She was able to get help paying her bills, which allowed her power and water to be restored the next day. But others aren't as fortunate. More than 90,000 Floridians had their utilities disconnected in January of this year.

"My very last call last night or text message before I went to bed was a single mother asking for help to keep her lights on," says father Jose Rodriguez, vicar of the Episcopal Church of Jesus of Nazareth. It's based in Azalea Park, a community in the Orlando area. Rodriguez says neighbors are struggling to pay their utilities, so they come to his church asking for help.

"In this neighborhood, the story is the same because the industry that families served is the same. They worked for a local hotel, they worked for the theme park, they worked at the airport, they worked in our hospitality industry, they've either lost their jobs or their hours have been reduced or they have irregular hours, and they're having trouble making ends meet, and they're coming for help," Rodriguez says.

His church helps when it can, but the need has been so great, Rodriguez says for the first time, they're finding themselves saying no more than yes when people come by. Rodriguez is now a part of the Connected in Crisis Coalition, which advocates for people who can't pay their utility bills. Members include Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Winter Park), who is pushing a bill meant to give relief to those struggling to keep the lights on.

"We know that electricity is not a luxury in Florida. It is a necessity," Smith says.

Smith's proposal would create a utility customer assistance fund that would reimburse utilities for providing subsidized repayment plans to customers with accounts past due. To get reimbursed, the companies have to do certain things. They must state that they won't disconnect residential customers through the end of the year. They also have to waive all reconnection fees for people who were disconnected at the beginning of the pandemic. And try to restore utilities to anyone who was disconnected. Right now, Smith's proposal would use $100 million from general revenue to reimburse utilities, but he's hoping the legislature will use funds from the new federal COVID-19 relief package to pay for his proposal.

"There is not a need for us to dip into state general revenue to fund this program because we have over $10 billion on the way, and I'm actually not even including the money that is going to be allocated to cities and counties in Florida," Smith says.

Smith says so far, lawmakers he's talked to haven't resisted his bill. But they also haven't scheduled it for a hearing.

Florida Education Association Marks The One-Year Anniversary Of COVID-19 School Closures

The Florida Education Association held a virtual news conference on Friday, March 12, marking the one-year anniversary of the statewide closure of public schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year as the virus spread it was decided, on March 13, that schools would be closed down. This caused many teachers to reimagine what learning looked like overnight.

For teachers like Latonya Starks, an elementary school teacher in Lee County, that meant making sure her students still felt connected during a time that made learning difficult.

“We don’t want them feeling broken when it comes to education because they’re not going to be able to learn anything if they don’t feel like that part of them is cared for,” she said.

Starks, who contracted the virus herself, tried to make the best of the situation even after schools opened last fall.

“When we started the school year though just the idea of building this community with my kids, and teaching them how to use their masks properly and how to clean properly, I really and truly wanted to make sure they understood that they weren’t fearful but also understood how to operate in this environment,” Starks said.

Also on the call was Orange County school bus driver Clyde Mitchell — he said that it has been hard to keep students socially distant and that he constantly has to remind them that they have to wear their masks.

“We constantly have to clean our bus every time we drop off at school. I sanitize my bus at least four times a day,” he said.

Mitchell said that bus drivers have been providing students with hand sanitizers and masks if the students don’t have their own.

FEA President Andrew Spar remarked how last year, before the pandemic hit hard, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared 2020 the “Year of the Teacher.”

He also announced that the FEA is launching a new ad campaign in hopes that lawmakers will more strongly support public schools, their staff, teachers and students this year.

Manatee Schools Cancel Prom

Public school district officials in Southwest Florida are making plans for end-of-school-year events amid the ongoing pandemic. The Herald Tribune reports Manatee County high schools are planning to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies, but the district has cancelled prom this year.

Manatee High school graduates are limited to two tickets each to their ceremonies, but that could increase if COVID numbers continue to improve over the next several months.

Meanwhile in Sarasota County, school leaders are going ahead with prom celebrations that will include major safety precautions like mandatory masks, seating charts and physical distancing. School leaders in Sarasota have not yet finalized plans for graduation ceremonies.

As people 60 and older in Florida became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, Monday, the Department of Health in Manatee County is administering 10,200 first-dose inoculations this week.

The Herald Tribune reports, the Department of Health in Manatee began making vaccine appointments, last Friday, for people with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

People with an underlying medical condition must first get a form certified by their doctor, and can then register in Manatee County for an appointment through a separate system than the lottery-based system for people 60 and older.

Appointments are being booked for weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the Manatee Health Department in Bradenton.

Prison Guards Turning Down COVID-19 Vaccine

Prison guards across the U.S., including in Florida, are refusing coronavirus vaccines at alarming rates. The AP reports, that's causing public health experts to worry about the prospect of controlling the pandemic.

Infection rates in prisons are more than four times as high as in the general public. Prison staff helped accelerate COVID-19 outbreaks by refusing to wear masks, downplaying people's symptoms and not routinely enforcing physical distancing and hygiene protocols in confined, poorly ventilated spaces.

A correctional officer in Florida polled his colleagues in a private Facebook group earlier this year about whether they'd take the vaccine if offered and more than half indicated they would not.

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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.
Caitie Switalski Muñoz
Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.
Odalis Garcia is a recent graduate from The New School in New York City where she majored in Journalism with a minor in Religious Studies. Through that she found a love of storytelling. People have so much to say but there are some who are kept quiet or not allowed to have a seat at the table. Odalis hopes to use her work and her words to allow these voices to tell their stories in a fair way. Odalis also spent her time managing the social media for her college and her school's newspaper. It's always the best excuse to have Twitter and Instagram open at all times.