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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 4,599 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday, for a total of 1,989,024. infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 55 coronavirus-related deaths March 18, increasing the statewide death toll to 33,120 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management dropped to 7.16% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 6.34% and 8.91%.

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 2,999. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 220 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Wednesday afternoon that 86 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. Currently 68% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 9% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 8 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 10 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Wednesday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 4.4 million (4,464,600) people have been vaccinated including more than 1.9 million (1,967,600) people who have received a first dose, and nearly 2.5 million (2,496,435) who have completed the series including 120,745 people who have received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

DeSantis Wants To Boost Tourism, Ports By $300M

Florida’s ailing tourism industry could get a boost from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wants money from the American Rescue Plan to go towards Florida’s ailing cruise industry. DeSantis is recommending about $260 million dollars go to Florida’s ports.

“That is an amount equal to the losses they accrued during the pandemic through February of 2021,” DeSantis said. “And obviously they still will be incurring potentially more losses, but we hope they will be able to get everything operating very soon.”

Cruise ships are still under a no-sail order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention. Separately, DeSantis wants to see another $50 million dollars going to Visit Florida to promote tourism in the state.

“There’s a lot of pent up demand, we believe, a lot of money on the sidelines from people who haven’t been doing some of the things they would normally be doing. We obviously want Florida to be the beneficiary of that when people get back in the mix.”

Florida is expecting to get between $9 and $10 billion dollars from the American Rescue Plan.

Gov. DeSantis also said, Tuesday, he wants to use Florida's share from the federal COVID-19 relief bill to send bonus checks to tens of thousands of first responders. The AP reports, under DeSantis' plan firefighters, law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel would each get $1,000 bonuses.

FL Senate To Vote On COVID-19 Liability Protections

Florida lawmakers are working to join more than a dozen other states that have already enacted COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and health care providers. Legislation is moving quickly through both chambers, despite opposition from consumer and worker advocates.

The proposed legislation would make it harder for people to sue businesses, hospitals and nursing homes for failing to follow COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, explained in his opening remarks to lawmakers earlier this month that the legislation would pass early this session.

“Our frontline health care workers have had to make very important decisions in the midst of rapidly changing guidance and protocols. We must do everything we can to protect these heroes. Businesses have also suffered greatly and are doing the best they can to safely reopen during a period of extreme uncertainty,” said Simpson.

He said he thinks the bills strike the right balance between shielding businesses from frivolous lawsuits while protecting workers and consumers, but union leaders, consumer advocates and personal injury lawyers have spoken out against the proposal. They argue the proposed measure would make it almost impossible for people with legitimate negligence claims to succeed in court.

“The bar has been set so high for anyone to gain access to the courts, let alone prevail on a COVID case,” said personal injury attorney Michael Feiner of injurylawyers.com.

He said about 50 COVID-related claims have so far been filed. Nearly two million people have been infected with COVID-19 in Florida.

“Giving those people unfettered access to the court system, I think, scares obviously, the legislature. It scares big business. It scares everybody ultimately into creating this kind of law,” said Feiner.

“Ultimately that’s what happens. When big business and insurance companies face that in big numbers, things start to change. It’s not something that is new. It’s something that happens all the time.”

State lawmakers have argued the protections are needed to spare already burdened business owners and health care providers additional costs from potentially frivolous lawsuits. Feiner said he co-owns an assisted living facility in Miami and he doesn’t see it that way.

“As an owner of a nursing home, ultimately I’m still doing the same things as before. I’m still trying to protect those people within the nursing home and if I fail to do that because I’m acting with such negligence, then quite frankly, we’re deserving of a lawsuit for failing to protect people we didn’t protect. I don’t think the game should change just because we’re dealing with a different kind of injury,” said Feiner.

Florida’s union leaders have also voiced opposition to the bill. Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO said at a recent virtual press conference that the proposed legislation would make it harder for workers to negotiate with their employers for health and safety accommodations.

“We have negotiating teams all over the state that have been working, trying to work collaboratively with their employers to have some type of safety protocols to make sure that consumers and workers are safe while that business runs their enterprises,” said Templin.

“If this legislation passes, all of that work is in jeopardy.”

Despite concerns from workers and consumers, state lawmakers are set on passing liability protections for businesses and health care providers across the state. The House recently passed a bill protecting non-medical businesses. The Senate will consider a bill that protects health care providers and businesses on Thursday.

Vaccine Fraud Bill Passes First Senate Committee

The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed a bill, Tuesday, that would crack down on scammers who provide fraudulent information about COVID-19 vaccines and personal protective equipment.

The bill stems from people using authentic-looking websites to run scams that purportedly offer access to COVID-19 vaccines or personal protective equipment.

It would lead to felony charges for people who run the scams and would authorize the attorney general to seek injunctions to shut down websites or other platforms that are used to spread fraudulent information.“People have worked on scamming the public and scamming government under the guise of promising vaccines or PPE deliveries at such a capacity, when in fact it was never done in the first place,” said bill sponsor Senator Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville.

The legislation has two more committee stops in the Senate before it can be heard by the full chamber.

The House unanimously passed its version of the bill earlier this month.

Florida Nursing Home Visitors See Slight Changes Under New Federal Guidelines

For the first time since September, federal health officials are recommending that nursing home residents be allowed to see visitors in person.

But in Florida, where visitation has been allowed for months, the new federal guidelines will only make slight changes to the state’s current procedures, established to protect vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities.

In the past year, 10,727 residents at Florida’s long-term care facilities have died from complications of COVID-19, approximately one third of total deaths in Florida.

An emergency order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in October allowed long-term care facilities to open their doors for visitors under certain requirements, including temperature checks, social distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment for all visitors.

The federal guidelines, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, call for similar coronavirus infection prevention protocols outlined in Florida’s visitation order.

“The CMS guidance that came out is very similar to what we are already doing here in our state,” said Kristen Knapp, senior director of communications and strategy for the Florida Health Care Association. “There are some things that we are trying to get clarification on, because there are a few discrepancies.”

Knapp said there is one thing federal guidelines will influence: the ability for residents and visitors to touch.

The state order did not outline protocol for touching and originally required stringent social distancing. When visitation resumed in September, some family members of nursing home residents filed to become “essential caregivers” in order to share physical touch with their loved ones.

The new federal guidelines state that if a resident is fully vaccinated, they can choose to have close contact — including touch — with visitors.

“If you’re fully vaccinated, your residents and your visitors can hug, and that’s huge,” Knapp said. “For someone who has a husband or a wife in a facility, a mom or a dad, being able to hold their hand and wrap your arms around them is significant.”

The other main discrepancy between the state and federal guidelines pertains to how nursing homes react in the instance of an outbreak of COVID-19. An outbreak exists when a new case of the virus occurs among residents or staff.

Florida’s order stipulates that if an outbreak were to occur, visitation would be closed off for the entire facility.

The federal guidelines say that visitation can still occur when there is an outbreak, if there is evidence that the transmission of COVID-19 is “contained to a single area of the facility.”

“Our facilities have learned how to manage residents with the virus by setting up COVID isolation wings or dedicated areas so you’re not having cross contamination,” Knapp said. “Now if you have an outbreak, you only have to shut down that particular wing versus the whole building, and I think that’s a benefit.”

The expanded visitation guidelines come as Florida nursing homes experience a decline in COVID-19 cases.

Out of 137,367 residents in Florida’s long-term care facilities, 400 are now being treated for coronavirus. That’s 3,251 fewer than the peak in January.

USF Chosen For Virus Research Headquarters

The Global Virus Network has named USF Health as its new southeast U.S. regional headquarters.

GVN is a system of researchers from around the world who study how viruses work and how they make people sick.

Dr. Christian Bréchot is both GVN President and a professor of internal medicine at USF Health. He said that the partnership between the two organizations will help develop new ways to combat viruses.

“It will help for example, to evaluate new treatments,” said Bréchot. “It will help to evaluate new diagnostic tests, new vaccine protocols.”

USF’s research influence should also increase because of the agreement.

“It's really connecting all (the) best experts in virology worldwide,” said Bréchot. “It will really help increase (the) visibility of USF at the international level.”

Bay area hospitals will also benefit from, as well as contribute to, the research.

“This partnership will help USF and Tampa General Hospital, and possibly other hospitals, reinforce clinical research,” Bréchot added.

The partnership will start off small, with only a few officers in the program, but Bréchot said that the hope is it will expand over time — potentially making USF Health a more intriguing choice for prospective students and researchers.

“The idea is that, with this naming of USF as headquarters, we are obviously improving our chance to get (more) hands,” said Bréchot. “That, in turn, will lead to recruit (more) scientists, medical doctors, and so on.”

Bréchot said a big part of the reason why USF landed the headquarters is because of its response to COVID-19. He pointed specifically to how effective USF’s COVID-19 protocol has been.

“This activity has been part of what I (refer to) as the beginning of…USF’s commitment and engagement (in fighting) infectious disease,” Bréchot said.

Pediatricians In Boca Raton Say A Vaccinated Woman Gave Birth To Baby With COVID-19 Antibodies

Two pediatricians in Boca Raton have published a study after a vaccinated woman with no history of COVID-19 gave birth to a baby with COVID-19 antibodies.

Boca VIPediatrics Founder Dr. Chad Rudnick said a healthcare worker was nine months pregnant when she took one Moderna vaccine shot. Three weeks later, she gave birth to a healthy girl with COVID-19 antibodies.

“Having this information available just kind of give us more to discuss and be able to discuss confidently because we want to make sure that our babies who will be our patients once they are born are protected even before they become our patients,” said Dr. Rudnick.

Fellow pediatrician Dr. Paul Gilbert said this case highlights the importance of including newborns and pregnant mothers in the vaccine rollout discussion.

“That group which is often excluded from trials and studies, initially, gets the protection as well as the rest of the public and can hopefully not suffer as much from this pandemic,” said Dr. Gilbert.

The pediatricians expect the scientific community to study thousands of babies and maternal COVID-19 vaccinations to see how long the antibodies will last. It's still not scientifically clear that having antibodies makes you immune from COVID-19.

National COVID-19 Commission Reports Rise in Domestic Abuse During Pandemic

Stay-at-home orders that swept the country last spring drastically worsened cases of domestic violence, according to a new report from the National Commission on COVID-19. University of Miami professor and commission research leader Alex Piquero explained how devastating the pandemic has been for survivors of domestic abuse and their children.

"The scope and range of what I’ve called a pandemic within a pandemic; The drastic adverse effects that this pandemic has had on women and children, not just with respect to domestic violence, but also with respect to employment, employability and education,” said Piquero.

The study examined academic and government research from across the U.S. and found at least an 8% increase in domestic violence calls compared to 2019. Piquero said the number is likely much higher since cases are generally underreported.

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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.
Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Jacob Wentz
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.
Chris Remington knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.