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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 1,976 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 2,293,980 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 58 coronavirus-related deaths May 17, increasing the statewide death toll to 36,857 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 6.3% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 5.24% and 8.13%.

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 dropped to 2,435. In Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined there are currently 221 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals has dropped to 88, compared to 105 admitted coronavirus patients one week ago.

Currently 74% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 25% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 15 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 23 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 9.6 million (9,608,397) people have been vaccinated including more than 2 million (2,012,175) people who have received a first dose, and more than 7.5 million (7,596,222) who have either completed the two-dose series or who have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Sarasota School Board Revisits Mask Policy

Amid recent changes in CDC guidance regarding mask wearing, the Sarasota County School Board plans to revisit the district's mask policy at a workshop at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendations saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most situations, even while indoors.

Then on Saturday, the CDC issued follow-up guidance saying schools should maintain their existing precautions through the end of the current school year.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports, it’s unclear what changes the school board could make, given that proposed changes in district policy are typically required to be advertised for 30 days before the school board can vote on them. The school year will be over June 11, which is less than a month away.

School Board member Bridget Ziegler says the board could adopt an emergency 90-day policy to override the 30-day requirement. The board had been planning to simply allow its mask policy to sunset as scheduled on June 30.

In neighboring Manatee County, school board members, last week, faced calls from parents to end the district's mask mandate, but officials say there isn't enough time to implement a policy change before the school year ends at the end of May.

Area Churches Hosting COVID-19 Vaccine Pop-Up Clinics

Faith-based organizations are increasingly partnering in the ongoing effort to get people inoculated against COVID-19. The Herald Tribune reports churches can often be an ideal location for pop-up vaccine clinics because they generally have large outdoor spaces to allow for physical distancing and because church leaders often have relationships with the broader community.

St. Armands Key Lutheran Church at 40 N. Adams Drive in Sarasota is hosting a vaccine clinic Sunday, May 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The clinic will offer the two-dose Moderna vaccine and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to people with registered appointments and walk-ins alike.

Vaccine doses at the clinic are being provided through Hedges HealthMart Pharmacy in Sarasota.

In recent days other churches in the region including St. David's Episcopal Church in Englewood and Bethlehem Baptist Church in the historically Black Newtown neighborhood have hosted vaccine clinics.

Florida Theme Parks Relax COVID-19 Restrictions

Theme parks in Florida are loosening COVID-19 restrictions following the CDC's new guidance that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most settings.

The AP reports, on Saturday, visitors to Universal Studios-Orlando and Walt Disney World were allowed to remove their masks in outdoor settings except when on an attraction, in line, or while riding transportation.

Masks at the parks remain mandatory in indoor settings, except in restaurants while seated.

SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa are loosening restrictions even further, allowing guests to go maskless throughout the parks as long as they say they are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination Rates Low for Rural North Florida Counties

COVID-19 vaccination rates for rural areas in north Florida are low. That's according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers for the total population compared with how many people have received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine.

For Baker and Holmes counties, nearly 22% of the total population have received at least one shot. The nearby counties of Washington, Calhoun, and Gilchrist are only slightly higher. That's a far cry from the 70% - 80% recommended by infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNBC's Healthy Returns Livestream.

"If we get that, we would develop an umbrella of immunity that would be able to protect even the vulnerables who have not been vaccinated or those in which the vaccine has not been effective," Fauci said.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has been surveying the public's opinion toward COVID-19 vaccines since last December. 42% of rural Americans surveyed say they will wait and see whether to get the vaccine, will only get vaccinated if required, or will definitely not get the vaccine.

The foundation's Liz Hamel says that percentage has less to do with geography and more to do with political opinion.

"One of the big divides we've seen in people's views on the vaccines has been bipartisanship. And we found that Republicans have been more likely to say they don't want to take the vaccine, and so when we control for partisanship in a model, we find that actually there's no difference between rural and urban residents it's just that there's a larger share of people living in rural areas who are Republicans, and those people are more hesitant to take the vaccine," Hamel says.

Hamel says about one in five Republicans surveyed say they don't plan to get the vaccine at all.

"For that group, it really is a sense of not feeling like they're at risk from the disease as much. In addition to concerns about side effects and the newness of the vaccine, which we see across populations," Hamel says.

And it's not just rural areas that have low vaccination rates. In the panhandle, the rate in Bay County is 29%.

"I'm very surprised. I'm surprised—I don't know why it would be that low," Al Cathey says. He's the Mayor of Mexico Beach in Bay County.

Cathey says very few people he's talked to have said they're hesitant to take the vaccine.

"The overwhelming majority of the people that I have spoken to—the conversation has come up—all have been vaccinated, all were glad they were able to get it," Cathey says.

Epidemiologist Dr. Perry Brown says it's important not to have pockets of unvaccinated people.

"Suppose in Florida we had 70% of the population vaccinated, but in one particular town, we had 10% vaccinated, so 90% of the people were not. We could have a raging outbreak in that little town because hardly anybody is protected," Brown says.

Brown says unvaccinated groups don't have to be defined by geography.

"Those pockets could be racial or ethnic pockets. They could be geographic pockets like a town or a county, or a city. They could be pockets defined by, let's say, an occupational site where you have 200 people, and nobody is immunized," Brown says.

Brown urges people to get vaccinated. He is a professor of public health at Florida A&M University. Brown led a team recruited by the Florida Department of Health to help with the state's early response to the pandemic.

Gov. DeSantis Dismisses Cruise Line Concerns About Vaccinated Passengers

The Norwegian Cruise Line recently indicated it may skip Florida ports because of Governor Ron DeSantis' order banning businesses from requiring passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The AP reports, DeSantis responded during a news conference Thursday, saying that Norwegian is not one of the bigger cruise lines and that if smaller cruise lines want to leave Florida, their void would be filled.

Miami-based Norwegian is the third largest cruise line in the world. Norwegian ships operate out of ports in Miami, Port Canaveral and Tampa along with stops in Key West.

Gov. DeSantis Signs 'Alcohol-To-Go' Into Law

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law, May 13, that makes permanent a popular COVID-19 emergency order allowing restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks with take-home meals.

The to-go option officially becomes law July 1 and will be available to restaurants that have special alcoholic-beverage licenses and derive at least 51% of revenue from food and non-alcoholic sales.

To-go drinks must be placed in secured containers and placed in locked compartments, vehicle trunks or in areas behind the seats in vehicles. DeSantis said to-go alcohol sales were a lifeline for restaurants over the past year.“They have responded to their customers. That is one of the reasons why, in spite of having a lot of challenges over the past year, we are really thriving,” said DeSantis.

Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Julie Brown says alcohol sales have kept many businesses open.

“Countless restaurant owners throughout the state have pointed to the option of selling or delivering alcohol to go as really the critical link of being able to survive during the challenging times,” said Brown.

Restaurants will be prohibited from including alcoholic drinks in orders being delivered by people under 21. The law requires cutting off the sale of to-go drinks when a restaurant’s scheduled food service ends for the day or at midnight, whichever occurs first.

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Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .