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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

Florida is once again seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations. State health officials reported 3,614 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 2,047,379 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 72 coronavirus-related deaths, March 29, increasing the statewide death toll to 33,891 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management increased to 10.09% on Sunday, marking the highest single-day positivity rate reported in Florida since February 3rd.

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 increased to 2,946. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 199 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, marking an increase of 28 patients compared to last Thursday.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 73 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. Currently 67% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 11% 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 Monday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 5.6 million (5,679,601) people have been vaccinated including more than 2.5 million (2,537,765) people who have received a first dose, and more than 3.1 million (3,141,836) who have completed the series, including 221,801 people who have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

DeSantis To Sign Executive Order Against “Vaccine Passports”

Governor Ron DeSantis is barring local governments and businesses from requiring "vaccine passports" to show proof that people have been inoculated against COVID-19.

The AP reports, DeSantis addressed the issue, Monday, saying he'll issue an executive order. DeSantis said he's also calling on the Republican-led state legislature to take up a bill addressing the issue of vaccine passports, but did not provide specifics of what he'd want in the bill.

President Joe Biden's administration is working to create some form of vaccine passport system people could use in school, the workplace or while traveling. The travel industry, in particular, has been requesting such a system.

DeSantis' announcement came as vaccine eligibility in Florida expanded to include people 40 and older.

Florida will expand vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older on Monday, April 5. The FDA has only authorized the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people 18 and up, so 16 and 17-year-olds will only be able to receive the Pfizer vaccine and must be accompanied by a parent.

DeSantis Signs FL COVID-19 Liability Protections Into Law

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on Monday COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and health care providers.

The legislation makes it harder for people to sue grocery stores, churches, schools, hospitals and nursing homes for failing to follow health and safety guidelines.

“We don't want to be in a situation where people are scared of being sued just for doing normal things,” DeSantis said at a press conference before signing the bill. “And so we worked very early on to look to see ways that we could provide some certainty for businesses and health care providers."

Republican leadership in the state legislature prioritized liability protections, with the legislation making it to the governor’s desk before any other bill this session.

Florida is now among more than a dozen other states that have enacted some form of coronavirus-related liability protections.

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, touted the measure as the "most aggressive" in the nation.

“What this bill does is says if you're doing the right things, you're protected,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater. “If you're doing the wrong things, then there's a way for people to get there.”

Personal Injury attorney Michael Feiner of InjuryLawyers.com says it will make it almost impossible for anyone with a legitimate claim to win in court. “The bar has been set so high for anyone to gain access to the courts, let alone prevail on a COVID case.”

Plaintiffs must obtain an affidavit from a doctor, stating the defendant’s failure to following health and safety guidelines caused the COVID-19 infection that led to a death or injury “within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”

The complaint must also rise to the level of “gross negligence.” Feiner says that means the defendant only has to prove they were aware of a "high probability" that someone would contract COVID-19 if they continued operating in the same fashion.

In other negligence cases, that bar is lower, Feiner said. “It’s only a reasonable degree of medical probability."

Lawmakers Hold Back Funding for Kids Missing From School

Florida lawmakers began the annual legislative session by asking school districts to locate nearly 90,000 students that were expected to enroll but didn’t. They warned of looming budget cuts. Schools managed to locate about half of those students. Senate Education Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, notes lawmakers will hold money in reserve in case the rest show up next school year.

“We know the enrollment was down 88,000. That’s been reduced to 48,000. So what we’ve done in essence is, put that in the back of the bill in case those 48,000 show up in the fall,” said Broxson.

The Senate is planning to reserve about $350 million for those still-missing kids while the House is planning to hold back $334 million. The money would be released to districts if or when those children show up.

Both chambers have released the first drafts of what will eventually become the state’s spending plan for the next fiscal year and those plans are about $500 million apart on their proposed budgets for K-12 schools.

Florida’s Unemployment Rate Continued To Decline in February

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts expand across Florida, the state’s unemployment rate ticked down in February.

Florida’s jobless rate went from 4.8% in January to 4.7% in February, according to numbers released Friday by the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

Florida’s rate was better than the national rate of 6.2%.

The February rate reflects an estimated 474,000 Floridians out of work from a workforce of 10.1 million.

The DEO’s chief economist Adrienne Johnston said labor-force numbers should continue to improve as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“They're going to feel more confident to go back and connect into the labor market, to go back into purchasing goods and services and engage in economic activity. As that happens, that's certainly going to drive employment up,” said Johnston.

The number of unemployed people was 124,000 higher than in February 2020, just before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the state and national economies.

The biggest impacts remain in the leisure and hospitality industry, which lost nearly 300,000d jobs, or 22.4% of its workforce, from February 2020 to last month.

Florida Officials Threaten Lawsuit Against Federal Government Over Rules On Cruise Lines

Florida officials are threatening to sue the federal government over the ongoing ban on cruise lines utilizing U.S. ports.

The AP reports, Governor Ron DeSantis and state Attorney General Ashley Moody said, Friday, that the federal moratorium on cruise ship operations at U.S. ports is harming the state economically. They say cruises are operating safely around the globe with restrictions and protocols in place and that no new COVID-19 outbreaks have been tied to cruise ships.

CDC guidance has put the cruise industry on a year-long hiatus. Earlier this month Royal Caribbean announced plans to resume some sailings in early June for passengers 18 and older who will be required to test negative for the coronavirus before boarding a ship.

Lee County’s Vaccine Rollout Targeting Seniors Still Seeking A First Dose

The Florida Department of Health in Lee County is receiving 30,000 COVID-19 doses to administer first shots to seniors 65 and older who are preregistered to receive the vaccine. The News-Press reports, more than 15,000 of those doses are to be administered this week.

The Department of Health is requesting that seniors who preregistered for the vaccine, but who may have missed their appointment phone call from the state's contracted vaccine vendor Tidal Basin, to send an email to Lee-PIO@FLHealth.gov with the words "missed call" in the subject line. The body of the email should include the person's name, date of birth and the phone number they used to preregister.

Seniors who preregistered, but who acquired a vaccine elsewhere are asked to remove themselves from the registration list by sending an email to that same address with the words "cancel reservation" in the subject line.

Federal COVID Relief Funding Coming to Sarasota

Florida is expected to receive $17 billion from the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus aid bill dubbed, "The American Rescue Plan."

Florida's share includes $10.2 billion for the state government and $7 billion for local governments.

The Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota County is expected to get $84 million, although county officials have not received notification of that funding amount.

The city of Sarasota will receive an estimated $10.9 million and city officials are still considering how to use the federal funding.

Former Cape Coral City Councilmember Dies Of COVID-19 Complications

Former Cape Coral City Councilmember John Carioscia died Sunday of complications from COVID-19.

The News-Press reports, he served on the Cape Coral city council for two terms before stepping down last year.

In his last months in office, Carioscia supported an unsuccessful effort to institute a mask mandate in Cape Coral.

North Fort Myers Business Owner Convicted of Pandemic Relief Funding Fraud

A North Fort Myers business owner was convicted, Friday, of illegally receiving more than $2 million in COVID-19 pandemic relief funding. The AP reports, a federal jury in Fort Myers finds Casey David Crowther guilty of bank fraud, making a false statement to a lending institution and two counts of money laundering.

A criminal complaint says Crowther applied for a paycheck protection loan last April on behalf of his roofing company. He spent nearly $700,000 of that money on a 40-foot catamaran and paid $100,000 to a former business partner.

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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.
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.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .