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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 5,571 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday, for a total of 2,184,354 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 83 coronavirus-related deaths April 21, increasing the statewide death toll to 35,294 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management dropped to 7.91% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 7.87% and 10.88%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning the number of patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 admitted to hospitals throughout the state has increased to 3,487patients. Hospitals in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined have a total of 258 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Wednesday afternoon that 112 patients were being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals.

Currently 72% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 10% 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 Wednesday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 8.2 million (8,228,278) people have been vaccinated including more than 2.9 million (2,914,093) people who have received a first dose, and more than 5.3 million (5,314,185) who have completed the series.

USF To Study Allergic Reactions To COVID-19 Vaccines

The University of South Florida is studying whether those with a history of allergies are more at risk for severe reactions from COVID-19 vaccines.

Out of everyone who received an initial dose of the Pfizer vaccine in the U.S., only 10 to 12 people per million had severe allergic reactions. For the Moderna vaccine, that number fell to less than three per million.

People with a history of severe allergies tended to be more likely to have severe reactions.

USF Professor of Medicine Dr. Thomas Casale said the study will help identify why those reactions are happening.

“We would look for the potential mechanisms involved in inducing that allergic reaction and they'll even be some genetic studies to determine if there's some sort of genetic predisposition towards getting these allergic reactions,” said Dr. Casale.

He clarified that food allergies do not increase risk for reactions to the vaccine and he stressed that no one has died from allergic reactions from vaccines, compared to roughly 600,000 who have died in the United States from the coronavirus.

Florida Senate Continues Consideration of Higher Jobless Benefits

The Florida Senate sponsor of a bill to increase the amount of money and time Floridians can collect unemployment benefits continues to hold out hope his legislation will pass before the 2021 legislative session ends next Friday.

Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has proposed raising weekly unemployment relief from the current cap of $275 per week to $375 dollars per week. The bill was temporarily postponed on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“We are working real hard with the legislative process right now to just get it off the Senate floor. That’s the first step,” said Brodeur. “After that, we can negotiate with the House to see what they think is reasonable. Hopefully, throughout that debate, we will be able to convince the governor of the need.”

Also Wednesday, the House unanimously approved a wide-ranging proposal that includes upgrading the state’s online unemployment system, which largely crashed last spring after becoming inundated with claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. The House bill would include starting to move the troubled CONNECT system to a cloud-based service.

However, House bill sponsor Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, is against increasing the amount and duration of unemployment assistance.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, the amount and the duration of benefits is not what this very good infrastructure bill is about. This bill fixes a broken system,” said LaMarca.

Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis voiced his opposition to boosting jobless benefits.

Currently, unemployment benefits in Florida range from $32 to $275 dollars per week, making them among the lowest amounts in the nation.

The state cut benefits in 2011 to blunt a major increase in unemployment taxes on businesses.

Sarasota To Hold Vaccine Clinic for Teens

The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County is holding a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic for 16 and 17-year-olds this weekend.

Teens will be able to receive shots of the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only version currently approved for people under 18.

The vaccine clinic will run Saturday, April 24 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Sarasota Square Mall site. Those interested are urged to make an appointment by calling the health department at 941-861-2883, but walk-ups without an appointment can also get the vaccine. The Herald Tribune reports, teens will need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian who can sign a consent form, and parents can also get shots of the Moderna vaccine at the same time.

Going forward the Sarasota Square Mall vaccine clinic site will be open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Sarasota School District Making Masks Optional in the Fall

The Sarasota County School board plans to sunset it's mandatory mask policy at the end of June. The Herald Tribune reports, on Tuesday, school board members took steps to assure families that the coming school year will see a significant return to pre-pandemic conditions as they're allowing several COVID-19-related policies to expire.

The district is asking educators to develop plans for teaching students who may have to go into quarantine in the future, but that educators will no longer have to teach in-person students and remote students via web cams simultaneously.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recently issued a directive to education officials that by this fall, mask wearing should be optional rather than mandatory, barring any major changes, although Corcoran's directive does not spell out consequences for districts that fail to comply.

Sarasota Experiencing Surge in COVID-19 Infections and Reduced Demand for Vaccines

As new COVID-19 infections in Sarasota County have ticked up in recent weeks, public demand for vaccine doses is slowing.

The Herald Tribune reports, Department of Health in Sarasota health officer Chuck Henry told county commissioners, Wednesday, that despite just 51% of the county's population getting the vaccine, the number of people seeking first doses of the Moderna vaccine is starting to lag.

The county has set a goal of inoculating 300,000 people by July 4, and as of Wednesday, 226,813 people had been vaccinated.

Health officials in Sarasota are also working to reach more minority populations through partnerships with churches, colleges, large employers and other organizations in an effort to offer more community vaccination events.

Community Groups Team Up To Vaccinate Homebound Residents In St. Petersburg

Health workers and nonprofits in St. Petersburg have teamed up on a grassroots effort to vaccinate homebound residents against COVID-19.

Spearheading the program is family nurse practitioner Daphne Gardner. On a recent evening, she visited St. Pete resident Charles Thompson's house wearing a blue lab coat and carrying a small black duffle bag of medical supplies.

Thompson is about 7 feet tall and sat in a large armchair with a brace on his leg. A phone and medications scattered the table next to him and a walker stood on the other side.

Since the pandemic hit, Thompson said he has pretty much been stuck there.

"Well, it's very depressing and lonely, although I do have family who do come by, you know, but just sitting here most of the day doing nothing with my health — because I have two very bad knees and a bad back — it's been hard," he explained.

Thompson, 67, said he was eager to get the vaccine so he would feel safe to start going back to the pool where he does physical therapy. But he was wary to ask a family member to take him for a shot because he didn't think he could physically handle waiting in a line.

Thompson said he learned about this program from a friend and was grateful for the opportunity.

“I hope this really can help me and it’s what I need,” he said of the vaccine.

"Don't talk about it, be about it."

Gardner said she wanted to make it easier for underserved residents disproportionately affected by the pandemic to get protection from the virus, and was used to working with home-based patients as part of her mobile health care business, Infinity Health Consultants.

So she teamed up with community groups and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County to launch a program in late March to vaccinate homebound adults and their caregivers.

At the start of this week, they had administered 134 doses, with more than half going to Black residents, who are being vaccinated at lower rates than whites in the county.

“It really has made a difference for those that can't come out,” said Gardner. “We've even had some bedbound patients and they were in tears when we first got there because they never thought they'd be able to receive that vaccine.”

Two health department nurses assist Gardner with the vaccinations each week.

Handling the scheduling is Lynn Johnson, founder of Community Tech House. She created the nonprofit, which helps people with digital tasks like vaccine registration and filing for unemployment, after the pandemic put her hair styling career on hold.

Johnson said at least in the beginning, the system for getting shots in Florida wasn't working for a lot of people with technology and mobility issues. When a client told her Gardner was vaccinating homebound people, Johnson knew she wanted to help.

"So, just jump in and get it done, don't talk about just be about it, you know what I mean?” she said. “Go ahead and be one of the team players to get it done.”

Also on the team is the Pinellas County Urban League, which secured $50,000 from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to fund the three-month initiative. Neighborly, a local Meals on Wheels group, tapped clients to be patients.

Connecting with residents

Johnson said there are some logistical challenges to having this many moving parts, especially since vaccine rollout has been so fluid.

For example, the team was relying on the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the federal government paused its use last week. They had to switch to two-dose Moderna on the fly and educate patients about the change.

“We can’t miss a beat because we don't want people to wait or second-guess themselves if should they get the vaccine or not, because we all need to be healthy and we all need to get our shots so we can come out,” Lynn Johnson said.

The state also runs its own program that has vaccinated thousands of homebound residents around Florida.

But the Urban League's Rebecca Watson said having groups that know the community helps build trust.

“People appreciate the personal touch, so being able to connect with people one-on-one to really talk to them, walking them through the process and making sure that we have accurate information, and that we keep our promises,” she said.

Working with community partners during the pandemic has been vital to improving equity in the county, according to Maggie Hall, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas.

“They are closer to the communities they represent than we are day-to-day, but by forging relationships with them it takes us into those communities, and it helps to make our public health mission stronger, so their value has been just tremendous, we really couldn’t do it without them,” she said.

With demand slowing at mass vaccination sites around the state, Watson said it will take more homegrown efforts like these to protect everyone. She said the Urban League is working to boost vaccine education and engagement to help more Pinellas residents get their shots.

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Jacob Wentz
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.