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COVID-19 Morning Report

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As of the latest update from the state Division of Emergency Management, June 3, Florida has documented 2,373,402 COVID-19 infections and 37,717 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Florida's latest reported single-day positivity rate dropped to 3.87 percent last Wednesday. Over the past two weeks, the positivity rate has ranged as high as 5.5%.

In Florida, more than 19 million total vaccine doses have been administered.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 45 patients are being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals compared to nearly 100 patients two weeks ago. Currently 78% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 27% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 7 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 14 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

Last week the Florida Hospital Association reported that hospitalizations due to COVID-19 infections in Florida were at their lowest level in more than a year. The Association reports that according to their data, the state's hospitalization rate has declined nearly 20% from the peak reached in July 2020.

Florida’s COVID-19 cases Increase Nearly 15%

Despite a nationwide decrease in COVID-19 cases over the last week, Florida saw infections increase. A USA Today Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data finds that for the week ending June 6, Florida experienced a 14.9% increase in new cases compared to the week prior. Nationwide, coronavirus cases dropped 28.3% over that same time period.

Florida accounts for 6.45% of the country's population, but 11.95% of COVID-19 infections across the country.

Florida ranks 22nd in the nation when it comes to people receiving at least one dose of vaccine. 50.1% of Florida's population is at least partially vaccinated compared to the national rate of 51.5%.

Twitter Suspends Account ff Former Florida Data Analyst Rebekah Jones

Twitter has suspended the account of former Department of Health COVID-19 data analyst Rebekah Jones. In email correspondence with WFSU, Jones says she posted a Miami Herald article, "a few dozen times too many and got auto-flagged for spam."

According to a screen capture provided by Jones, Twitter stated the company had suspended her account due to violating rules against platform manipulation and spam.

"You may not use Twitter's services in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people's experience on Twitter," the company states.

Jones has applied for an appeal to get her account unsuspended.

In response to Jones’ Twitter account suspension, the governor’s press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted “The Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation no longer has a platform to spread defamatory conspiracy theories. Long overdue.”

During her employment with the state, Jones was responsible for keeping Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard updated. She was fired from the job in May of last year and has since claimed her termination was retribution for not manipulating data. The Department of Health maintains she was fired for modifying data without input from agency epidemiologists or her supervisors. Jones has gone on to create her own COVID-19 tracker and has become a critic of the state’s response to the pandemic.

Jones’ home was raided late last year by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as part of an investigation into an unauthorized login into the Department of Health’s messaging system. An unidentified person gained access to that system and sent a message stating, “it’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”

Law enforcement officials tracked the sender’s IP address which led them to Jones’ home. Jones denied sending the message but would later turn herself in after a warrant was issued for her arrest. It stated that Jones was responsible for the unauthorized access and several unauthorized access attempts to FDOH systems. Jones was released from the Leon County Jail after posting a bail bond.

She was recently granted whistleblower status. Under state law, Jones could get her old job back or receive payments if investigators find her termination from DOH was due to retaliation.

Job Seekers Facing Unemployment Benefit Cuts Encouraged to Act Now

Florida recently joined a number of other states in cutting federal unemployment benefits early. The decision comes as businesses across the state report significant employment gaps.

Last week, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reinstated a “work search” rule that was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension allowed people to bypass a requirement to apply for five jobs a week before receiving benefits.

On June 27, the $300 weekly federal unemployment supplement that started during the pandemic will also come to an end. It could have been continued up until September under federal guidelines, but Florida is among 23 other states that have cut the additional assistance early.

According to an announcement from the DEO, the strategy is “another key step to get more Floridians back to work” as the state experiences gaps in employment.

The state’s latest figures show that 487,000 Floridians were jobless in April. That number is down significantly from 1,365,000 in the same month the previous year, when the coronavirus pandemic began to intensify.

Despite that, employers are still struggling to fill positions.

“We have more job postings now in Hillsborough County than we've ever had pre-pandemic,” said John Flanagan, CEO of CareerSource Tampa Bay, who estimated that there are currently 94,000 jobs open there.

“Those jobs are going unfilled because there's not a lot of interest,” he added. “Why that is, I can't speculate. Everybody has their own reasons.”

Supporters of the decision to end benefits have claimed that jobless people do not want to return to work because of the money they have been receiving from the federal government.

But some state officials have pushed back against that assertion.

In a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis dated May 28, Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, wrote, “There are several factors that make some companies face obstacles to finding workers: competitive wages, fear of unsafe workplaces, lack of opportunities in selected fields and unavailability of child care, to name just a few.”

The situation has spurred a national call for increased wages.

Some Florida companies, like Universal Orlando, have already responded. The theme park plans on increasing its minimum wage to $15 an hour as base pay for new workers, a policy it will implement starting June 27, the day federal unemployment benefits end in the state.

Florida voters approved a state-wide $15 minimum wage last November. It will increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021, and then increase it by $1 each year until Sept. 30, 2026, when it will be $15 per hour. Currently, the minimum wage is $8.56.

Representatives from CareerSource said they are aware of this call for increased pay, and can help match unemployed workers to jobs that fit their needs and experience.

“We are finding jobs for individuals that are looking for a high wage,” said Christina Sowers, operations manager of CareerSource Pasco Hernando. “And also, right after you file for reemployment assistance, and during the first 60 days, you can apply for ‘suitable work.’ That means that you can look for work that pays near what you were making and doesn't require you to do a change in occupation.”

As the federal benefits are set to end, Sowers expects more people to use the services offered by the group.

“Almost every time some news hits about the changes to reemployment assistance, we see a spike in calls, especially in the last couple of weeks,” Sowers said.

“I feel like we have enough time and advance notice to know that the additional federal benefits are going to be ending. We've been helping individuals look at jobs and look at the salary of the jobs that are being offered, and connect them to those employers.”

She encouraged anyone concerned about the decision to reach out to CareerSource for assistance sooner rather than later.

“We're still here, we've continued to be here. Registering to look for work is something we've always helped you to do, submitting your work searches or finding out how to find those five jobs per week is something we can help you do. And if we can't come to the five jobs per week, we'll certainly offer you that career services session.”

Federal Judge to Hear Arguments in Florida Cruise Lawsuit Thursday

A federal judge will hear arguments in the state’s cruise line lawsuit against the CDC on Thursday in a court in Tampa.

At the heart of the lawsuit is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is allowing only two ways for cruises to restart. One is for cruise companies to have practice sails to prove they can control the spread of COVID-19. Or they can require almost all staff and passengers to show proof of vaccination. Florida says the CDC is overstepping its authority.

“Hopefully, before these cruises are set to embark, there’s some sort of resolution to this, but it would seem at least a couple of the cruise lines are willing to take that risk,” said attorney Dawn Meyers of the law firm Berger Singerman.

She’s referring to a new state law that goes into effect on July 1 that’s tangled with this lawsuit. It prohibits businesses in Florida from requiring vaccine passports.

A mediator couldn’t get the two parties to make a deal. So now the judge will take up the case again.

Cruise Companies Announce Plans to Resume Sailing

The Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. announced plans, Monday, to resume sailings from two Florida ports as well as from New York and Los Angeles.

The AP reports, Norwegian plans to require guests to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in violation of the new state law that bans businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. The company said it's in talks with Governor Ron DeSantis' office.

Norwegian plans to begin cruises from Port Canaveral and Port Miami.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean has also announced plans to resume cruises from Florida, Texas and Washington state next month. Royal Caribbean announced its summer schedule for eight cruise ships on Friday.

The company also announced some sailings from Europe. Royal Caribbean says all crew members will be vaccinated against COVID-19. Cruises to Alaska will require passengers 16 and older to be inoculated. The vaccination age requirement will drop to 12 on August 1.

For other sailings in the U.S., the company is strongly recommending that passengers be vaccinated. People who haven't been vaccinated will be required to show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding.

Florida Health Officials End Daily Reporting of COVID-19 Data

State health officials are no longer providing daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic through the Florida Department of Health's online COVID-19 dashboard, and instead are updating information on a weekly basis.

The AP reports, health department officials cite a decreasing number of cases and an increasing number of people being vaccinated as reasons for ending the daily reports.

The weekly data will be more focused on vaccinations, including data on the percentage of people over the age of 12 who have been inoculated.

State Courts to Ease Mask Wearing, Social Distancing for In-Person Proceedings

Florida courts can lift mask-wearing and social distancing requirements for in-person proceedings starting June 21. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued an administrative order, Friday, lifting the rules for mask wearing and physical distancing. The move comes as vaccines become more available and COVID-19 safety measures are easing.

The CDC instructs that people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear a mask or social distance unless told to do so by federal, state or local laws and regulations.

An order allowing Florida courts to lift COVID-19 safety precautions cites this federal guidance. It also points to vaccine availability for those 12 and up and the growing number of people who are fully inoculated against the coronavirus. The order states that trial court proceedings will continue to be done remotely.

Assisted Living Company That Mandates COVID-19 Vaccines for Employees Welcomes New Federal Guidelines

Federal guidance released in May that says employers have the authority to mandate that workers get vaccinated for COVID-19 is good news for some companies who had already taken that step.

Atria Senior Living was one of the first companies in Florida to voluntarily enact a vaccine mandate months before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took action.

The company, which operates nine assisted living communities throughout Florida, including three in the greater Tampa Bay area, says all of its employees are now vaccinated.

The mandate keeps seniors who live in the facility safer and provides peace of mind to their families, said Yunia Gonzalez, regional vice president of Atria.

“It's just to help create a safer environment for people. That was the big factor,” Gonzalez said. ”We have the vaccine as the first line of defense in protecting our communities. It's about ending this disease which has taken so many lives from us.”With more than half of adult Americans now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, many companies are considering whether to enact vaccine mandates in an attempt to speed up vaccinations and improve workplace safety.

The EEOC’s decision comes as employees are returning to the workplace and companies are determining how to open safely. The issue has remained a particular concern among long-term care facilities.

The AARP reported last month that cases of COVID-19 among Florida’s nursing home residents and staff are above the national average. Experts say part of the problem is due to only 38% of long-term care workers being vaccinated.

Atria launched the 'Sleeve Up Atria’ initiative in January, which aims to vaccinate more than 20,000 of the company’s assisted living residents and more than 12,000 of the company’s employees. The vaccine mandate was part of that initiative.

The response from employees has been overwhelmingly positive and hasn’t stopped people from applying to work at Atria, Gonzalez said.

And residents and families now feel safer, she said.

“Families feel at ease with that 100% vaccination rate, and the immunity that provides and so people are happy, they're so excited about getting back to some normalcy in their lives again,” she said.

The move has not come without objections, Gonzalez said. When they do arise, the company’s focus has been on understanding concerns and ensuring employees have access to reliable information on the vaccine, she said.

Without a statewide mandate, however, for all businesses, Gonzalez said the coronavirus will continue to pose a risk to seniors and cases may continue to climb.

“I think, by not mandating, it puts everyone at risk,” she said. “We serve a population that is the most susceptible to this disease and we have seen it in the numbers. We needed to make it a mandate. It's about ending this disease which has taken so many lives from us.”

Ultimately, Gonzalez said the company feels satisfied with the implementation of the vaccine mandate and the improvements the policy has brought in workplace safety.

“I couldn't be more proud and happier with the decision we made,” she said. “And so it's for us, there's no question about it, it was the right thing to do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this opportunity to reach herd immunity like we are seeing now.”

USF Survey Shows Many Still Wary ff Hurricane Shelters During Pandemic

Preliminary findings of a survey by the University of South Florida show there has been little change in how people feel about the safety of hurricane shelters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, USF researchers, led by Jennifer Collins, a professor in the School of Geosciences, and Elizabeth Dunn, an instructor in the College of Public Health, conducted a survey that more than 7,000 individuals participated in.

Results showed that 74 percent of the people surveyed said they felt at greater risk while being in a shelter from COVID-19 than from staying in their own home during a hurricane.

Although a vaccine is now available, and 70 percent of those surveyed this year have received at least one of their shots, Collins said there has been very little change in those feelings.

“It was shown that vaccination didn’t impact the decision to evacuate or not,” said Collins. “Very similar to 2020, people who would’ve used a shelter in the past still indicated that they probably would not during a pandemic.”

The early findings mirror a survey released this week by AAA that found 29 percent of the people they questioned would not evacuate their home if they were told to, and 60 percent would do so only if it was a Category 3 storm or higher.

“It’s really important to reinforce that shelters really are a safe alternative when you're considering storm surge, and if you're in an area that's ordered to evacuate,” she insisted.

With the 2021 hurricane season now underway, Collins adds that people should heed advice from experts like the National Hurricane Center to make decisions that can keep them safe.

“This hurricane season, again, could be more active than usual,” said Collins. “We know it only takes that one (storm). Try not to let your guard down if you kind of got away with other hurricanes in the past, because eventually the Tampa Bay region is going to get a real disaster. It's just a matter of when,” warned Collins.

The ongoing survey is open to those 18 and older until July 1, and can be found in English here, or in Spanish here.

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