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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 3,406 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 2,085,306 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 22 coronavirus-related deaths, April 5, increasing the statewide death toll to 34,364 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. Before the prior Sunday, March 28th, the single-day positivity rate hadn't risen that high since Feb. 3. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 6.9% and 10.1%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of Tuesday morning 2,938 patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 are admitted to hospitals throughout the state. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 214 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 96 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. That's up from 73 patients a week ago.

Currently 67% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 13% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 10 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 19 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the state Division of Emergency Management reported nearly 6.4 million (6,357,049) people have been vaccinated including nearly 2.7 million (2,670,869) people who have received a first dose, and nearly 3.7 million (3,686,180) who have completed the series, including 273,169 people who have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

All Adult Floridians Can Now Register To Get Vaccinated

All adults in Florida are now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Florida joins states including Alaska, West Virginia, Arizona and Texas that allow anyone eligible under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization to get vaccinated. That also means anyone 16 and older can get vaccinated with the Pfizer shot.

DeSantis has focused on Floridians over the age of 65 for the early roll-out of the vaccine. In total, about 3.5 million Florida seniors have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – that’s 77 percent of all seniors.

In total, three out of four seniors in Florida have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine — and more than half of seniors are completely vaccinated. President Joe Biden set a May 1 deadline to open vaccine eligibility to all adults.

Still, South Dakota and Vermont lead the U.S. with the highest percentages of vaccinated seniors.

The expanded eligibility comes as Florida is again seeing an increase in cases. According to figures from Johns Hopkins University analyzed by NPR, Florida is averaging 5,403 new cases per day. That’s a 20 percent increase from two weeks ago.

According to the CDC, an estimated 13 percent of all cases in Florida are the variant first discovered in the U.K. – the most in the U.S.

DeSantis Signs Executive Order Banning Vaccine Passports

Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order, Friday, banning businesses from requiring people to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to receive service.

The AP reports, DeSantis has been a critic of the concept of vaccine passports, which he says would reduce individual freedom and would harm patient privacy.

The governor's order ends a proposed plan by Nova Southeastern University to require students and staff to get the vaccine. School officials had previously said vaccinations would be mandatory by August 1.

State Legislature Takes Up Budget Proposals This Week

State lawmakers will take up their respective budget proposals during floor sessions this week. Four weeks remain in the annual 60-day session and the AP reports, much of the work ahead depends on new state revenue projections, which are expected to be released April 6.

The Senate's proposed $95 billion proposed budget does not include any of the $10 billion in federal relief funding from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, while the House's proposed $97.1 billion spending plan does draw from those relief funds.

Governor DeSantis initially had proposed a $96.6 billion budget, which he later amended with more than $4 billion in additional spending stemming from federal relief funds.

Emergency Preparedness Bills Continue Moving in Legislature

Several pieces of legislation continuing to move at the state capitol would limit local-government emergency orders, create a personal-protective equipment stockpile and establish an Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund for use by the governor.

One Senate proposal would require majority votes of local governments to extend emergency orders after 10 days and give the governor or the legislature the power to invalidate the actions. Another House plan would require local emergency orders to be extended in seven-day increments for a total duration of 42 days.

The House bill also would require the governor to justify closing schools and businesses and direct the Department of Health to create a comprehensive public response guide for future crises.

House sponsor Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said his bill will create a blueprint for governors to use during the majority of the year when the legislature is not meeting.

“Whether we are in session or out of session, it is good to know that we have these guardrails in place to help guide future governors on how to deal with emergencies,” said Leek.

The House proposal also would provide the legislature with the ability to line-item veto parts of emergency orders.

Sarasota City Commissioners Consider Reinstating Mask Order

Sarasota city commissioners are taking steps to reinstate a mandatory mask ordinance amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The city's previous mask order expired Feb. 25.

The Herald Tribune reports, commissioners approved a motion, Monday evening, to have the city attorney draft a mask ordinance proposal. That's slated to be ready for a first reading by May.

City Manager Marlon Brown says he will not enforce the mask order.

Farmworkers Talk with Agriculture Commissioner about Lack of Vaccines

Lupe Gonzalo from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers spoke at a Farmworker Roundtable With Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Mayor of Miami-Dade County Daniella Levine Cava on Wednesday.

She spoke about the farmworker community in Immokalee and how they’ve been struggling with the pandemic.

“Even in the pages of The New York Times, farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable and on the front lines of this pandemic,” Gonzalo said.

“Because of housing, transportation and working conditions, and because of the health of the farmworkers, who even before this pandemic suffered from medical conditions and now have higher COVID rates than the rest of this country— due in part because of the poverty and their lack of access to healthcare. And what we said would happen came true, farmworkers were at higher risks of getting sick and are dying at higher rates than other sectors in this country.”

Gonzalo asked Fried and Levine Cava what state and local governments are doing to address inequality in vaccine distribution for minority groups. Fried responded that she’s working with the White House to ensure more equal distribution of the vaccine.

“I will continue to hammer this issue,” Fried said. “We know that as of a few weeks ago, the inequality of the vaccines was so blatant that you saw almost a 4:1 ratio of the white part of our population being vaccinated compared to the rest of our state.”

Community leaders have expressed concern that farmworkers need to get vaccinated before they leave Southwest Florida and begin their journeys through the rest of the state, heading towards Georgia and the Midwest to follow the crop cycle.

Fried Becomes First Florida Cabinet Member To Get Vaccinated

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried became Florida's first statewide elected official to get publicly vaccinated last Thursday. The only Democrat on the Cabinet went to a testing site at the Al Lawson Multi-Purpose Center on the campus of Florida A&M University.

Fried received her first of two Moderna shots. It took less than five minutes.

“[It was] quick and easy and unbelievable staff, and really I just want to encourage everybody to get their vaccines when you're eligible," she said. "Now it's 40 and up, so that's why I am qualified to do so, and as the only statewide elected who has done this publicly, it's because I want to show the rest of the state of Florida and our country how important it is to get yourself vaccinated. This is the way we're saving lives."

Fried said she got her first vaccination at the state's largest historically black university to call attention to a persistent problem: that too few people of color are being vaccinated in Florida.

"And really, especially it is so important that we're doing this at FAMU, because we know that unfortunately, the inequality of the vaccines that are being given out in the state of Florida, that we should really be encouraging these vaccination sites where underserved communities and people of color have not seen such a high emphasis being put on by our state government."

Fried is widely considered to be a Democratic candidate for governor against DeSantis next year.

Brodeur Pitches Raising Unemployment Benefit To $375 A Week

Florida’s unemployment system nearly failed at the start of the pandemic, and critics point to low benefits as part of the problem. Now lawmakers in the Senate are looking to increase the amount of cash benefits. Still some Democrats say the proposed increase doesn’t do enough for workers.

The measure would increase Florida’s unemployment benefits to $375 a week, a hundred dollars more than unemployed workers currently receive. Florida is among the lowest in the nation in unemployment benefits. Bill sponsor Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur says he sought the $100 boost after seeing what other states are doing.

“We looked at the average of all weekly unemployment rate payments throughout the country and it was about $375 some had it at $380 some had it at $370 but nobody had it at $400 and nobody had it at $350," Brodeur said at a recent meeting of the Senate's Commerce and Tourism committee.

Senate President Wilton Simpson raised the issue at the start of the lawmaking session.

Though lawmakers on the Commerce and Tourism Committee recently backed the increase, Democrats offered amendments to go above what the bill provides. Among the ideas floated but struck down: making more people eligible for unemployment, increasing the length of time workers can receive benefits, and connecting the weekly cash payments to the state’s rising minimum wage. Brodeur opposed the amendments saying a substantial increase in the amount of unemployment benefits will strain business owners.

"Everybody’s made all of their current assumptions about what they’re going to have to pay based on our current formula. If we now expand the base and more people are drawing on it and it changes the formula that tax increase hits everybody, and so I know we’re trying to be fair to these individuals that this would impact but we’re also trying to balance that with fairness across every business from whom we would collect these taxes,” he said.

Florida’s unemployment benefits are funded through a trust fund which is backed by taxes paid by employers. Democratic Sen. Victor Torres offered an amendment to raise the weekly benefit to $500. Torres says without any added benefits he’s down on the bill.

“Your bill is not bad it’s not great. It doesn’t go far enough," he told Brodeur. "You didn’t take our amendments, and that’s your privilege but also for me to support your bill it has to go further so at this time I am not going to support this bill until it moves further.”

The bill has one more committee stop until reaching the Senate floor. The legislature is also considering paying for a rebuild of the state’s connect website, which buckled last Spring at the start of the pandemic when businesses were ordered closed. Lawmakers are also planning to use revenue generated by requiring out-of-state businesses to pay online sales taxes to shore up the unemployment trust fund.

A house companion bill that would also increase benefits sponsored by democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani and Ben Diamond has not been heard in its first committee yet.

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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.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.
Kevin Del Orbe