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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 4,237 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 2,173,138 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 32 coronavirus-related deaths April 19, increasing the statewide death toll to 35,142 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management increased to 10.84% on Sunday. The single-day positivity rate hasn't risen that high since Jan. 28 when it increased to 18.34% Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 7.87% and 10.84%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of Tuesday morning, 3,439 patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 are admitted to hospitals throughout the state, which is 321 more admitted patients than was reported a week ago. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have increased to 267 patients.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 89 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. Currently 73% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 15% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 7 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 15 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 8 million (8,069,752) people have been vaccinated including more than 2.9 million (2,956,696) people who have received a first dose, and more than 5.1 million (5,113,056) who have completed the series.

Lee Health Offers COVID-19 Vaccines To All Adults

As patient hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to rise in Southwest Florida, Lee Health is urging more residents to get vaccinated. The News-Press reports, April 16, Lee Health officials addressed the media, in an effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and to encourage people to continue practicing mask wearing and physical distancing when in public.

On Monday, Lee Health began offering vaccine doses to all Floridians 18 and older. Appointments can be made online at leehealth.vaccine.mychart.com/ and all doses are being administered at Gulf Coast Medical Center.

Currently Lee Health is offering doses of the Moderna vaccine, but in a news release Monday morning, the health system says people will be able to choose either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines when supply allows.

Three weeks ago, Lee Health was reporting a total of 55 patients admitted throughout the health system's hospitals with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19. On Friday, the number of admitted COVID-19 patients had increased to 106, although it was down to 89 patients on Monday.

The NCH Healthcare system in Collier County has seen similar increases in admitted COVID-19 patients since the end of March.

Hospital officials blame the recent patient increases on spring break celebrations, people becoming less vigilant about pandemic protocols like physical distancing and mask wearing, and the spread of more contagious variants of the virus.

Florida’s FEMA Vaccination Sites Now Offering Pfizer Vaccine Doses

Starting today, April 20, the state will offer first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at federally supported sites, including the Tampa Greyhound Track.

The sites had been offing the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the federal government recommended a pause earlier this month. Since then, the four FEMA locations in Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando had been offering Pfizer shots only to those who needed their second doses.

No appointment is necessary at the sites, but supply is limited. A spokeswoman for the state says it’s not likely that each site will be able to provide the 3,000 doses per day that they had been offering with Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

It’s not clear when the pause on distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be lifted.

Floridians still struggle with unemployment system a year into COVID-19 pandemic

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in Florida’s unemployment numbers. And Floridians are still saying the State’s website is a mess with many waiting months for their first payment.

After four years working as an analyst in the CareCentrix auditing the department, Jocelyn Smith didn’t anticipate herself filling out any more job applications.

Waiting

“I thought that was going to be the last job that I was going to have,” she said. “I planned to stay there for the long term. Thought I was going to retire from there.”

She also didn’t see herself waiting hours, weeks and now months for even a single payment from Florida’s Reemployment Assistance program. Not a year after she first heard the horror stories about waits, the site crashes and the delays affecting millions of unemployed Floridians.

“Now I’m one of them and I don’t think anything has been resolved since last year,” Smith said.

Smith, a St. Pete resident, was laid off on Jan. 15. Ten months after Florida was first made aware that CONNECT, its buggy online portal, couldn’t handle the deluge of applicants.

Smith filed for assistance just a few days after getting laid off. A software malfunction led to a rejected application. That got fixed, but the delays didn’t stop. Now, exactly two months later, Smith still hasn’t received a payment. She won’t even use the system anymore. Instead, she’ll spend nearly five hours on the phone to claim her benefits every other week. So far, she’s spent well over a day on the phone.

“Probably at least two with the times that I’ve claimed,” she said.

Legislative action

But a number of bills have been proposed this session to address the issues facing Florida’s Unemployment system. Not only did a statewide investigation find that CONNECT was never properly tested or designed, the State’s benefit system is among the lowest in the country.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, has proposed one of the broadest pieces of legislation. It’s essentially an overhaul of the system.

“This bill really is the platinum addition,” Eskamani said. “It’s a holistic approach to pushing unemployment to the 21st Century.”

The bill, HB207, would create an ombudsman position within the Department of Economic Opportunity to oversee reemployment assistance, including more ways for applicants to get help by phone and standardized response times. It also changes a number of eligibility requirements and creates parameters for how to handle future States of Emergency. There’s also language to overhaul the CONNECT system and increase benefits from a max of $275 per week to $500 per week and increase the time someone can receive benefits from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.

A system lacking

Federal data shows Florida has one of the lowest benefit payouts in the country and is well below the national average. It also shows most states provide benefits for 26 weeks.

Some bills proposing changes to unemployment have come from Republicans as well. But those don’t go quite as far as Eskamani and other Democrats hope to.

Rep. Even Jenne, a leader in the Democratic Caucus said all change is welcome, so long as it actually serves Floridians.

“We will take a very critical eye to the bill to make sure these are changes that are actually going to help people,” Jenne said. “We are very optimistic and very open minded but we also know this process can take beautiful things and turn them into monsters.”

Worth the cost?

But the changes would come at a cost. Some estimates put overhauling unemployment and the CONNECT system at around $250 million.

“Every person has potential to be vulnerable. I think it’s pretty clear that the state of Florida is pretty good at taking your money but terrible at giving it back to you,” Eskamani said. “And this is an investment that would make sure that no matter where you are in the state of Florida if you become unemployed and you’ve been contributing to a trust fund, that you can actually get that money to be your insurance.”

And as someone going still waiting for their first benefits two months after losing their job, Jocelyn Smith said it’d be a good and overdue use of tax payer money.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” she said.

Still in the midst of the pandemic, she hopes to find new work soon. By the time legislation goes through it might be too late to help her, but she’s made peace with that.

“It’ll be a miracle if I ever get a cent,” Smith said. “Honestly. I figure I’m never going to see anything. And I’m trying to find an opportunity. So, I’m just doing the best I can.”

Floridians Arrested on COVID-19 Relief Fraud

Eight people associated with a tax preparation business in Sarasota face coronavirus relief fraud charges.

The Herald Tribune reports, those arrested are employees of SRQ Financial Solutions, LLC, who detectives say submitted 114 fraudulent applications on behalf of business clients in an effort to receive more than $319,000 in federal CARES Act funding.

The applications included suspicious profit and loss statement and fake bank statements. SRQ business clients tell detectives they weren't asked for financial information about their businesses until after SRQ submitted the applications.

Detectives say SRQ was also charging a $150 fee to submit the CARES Act applications and taking 20% of approved funds.

Sarasota County Sheriff's office investigators say they're efforts may have prevented an additional $4.15 million from being released.

Another Florida man wanted on federal COVID-19 relief fraud was arrested last week by Croatian police. The AP reports, in February a federal grand jury indicted Don Cisternino, 45, on two counts of wire fraud, three counts of aggravated identity theft and three counts of illegal monetary transactions. He's alleged to have received more than $7.2 million in pandemic relief funds after making up hundreds of nonexistent employees on loan applications.

Cisternino was arrested on an international warrant on Croatia's border with Slovenia.

In March, the U.S. Justice Department announced that in the last year, they've charged 474 defendants with fraud-related schemes tied to the ongoing pandemic amounting to more than $568 million nationwide.

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