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Florida COVID-19 Daily Report

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With Florida at the epicenter of a nationwide resurgence of COVID-19 infections, some local governments are defying Republican Governor Ron DeSantis with new mask and vaccine mandates.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced Wednesday that masks will again be required at indoor county facilities. The AP reports, Orange County's mayor is going farther, requiring all 4,200 non-union employees to get their first COVID-19 vaccination shot by the end of August.

Leon County government is giving employees until Oct. 1 to get vaccinated and show proof, or be terminated. The county announced the move late Wednesday evening in a statement.

County Administrator Vince Long said he's not concerned about blowback from Gov. DeSantis' office. The county says its authority to order mandatory vaccinations comes through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that the shots qualify as a condition for employment. The county is allowing waivers for employees who can’t get vaccinated due to a medical condition, disability or religious belief.

"It’s my belief the days of donut giveaways and gift cards as an incentive to become vaccinated—those days are over. And I think more and more employers will have to consider what’s right for them. Again, as a frontline governmental agency, this is the decision I believe strongly is the right one for us and our community," Long said.

The move comes as COVID-19 cases in the state have jumped from a weekly low in June of about 10,500 infections, to last week’s high of more than 73,000. The rise in infections is being attributed to the highly-contagious Delta variant which is sickening mostly unvaccinated people.

According to the Florida Department of Health, Leon County’s vaccination rate sits at 51% for people over 12 years old. Long says a similar percentage of county employees have so far been vaccinated.

The City of Tallahassee says it’s not considering a similar mandate at this time.

In May, Governor DeSantis signed a bill into law barring businesses and government entities in the state from requiring proof of vaccination status. He's also signed a series of executive orders to invalidate efforts by local governments to curb the spread of the virus.

Broward School Board Mandates Masks for New School Year, Despite Expecting 'Trouble' From DeSantis

The Broward County school board is also defying Gov. DeSantis by requiring masks, triggering yet another battle between local elected officials and state leaders over COVID-19 policy.

Masks will be mandatory in Broward County public schools when students and teachers return to classrooms next month, according to a Wednesday decision from the school board that sets up a potential conflict with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In an email to WLRN in Miami, a spokesperson for DeSantis doubled down on the governor's recent threat to call a special legislative session to stop any school district from imposing mask mandates.

“The Governor’s position on this has not changed,” wrote DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw in the email.

DeSantis, considered a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, is selling anti-mask merchandise in support of his gubernatorial re-election campaign next year. In recent days, he referred to masks as “muzzles” and hosted a private discussion during which a panelist equated masking to “child abuse.”

Broward County school board members now find themselves in a similar position to where they were last year: facing political pressure as they make critical decisions about reopening schools during a pandemic.

Broward school board members are no strangers to clashes with DeSantis, and they are not naive about the battle they are likely inviting with this decision.

“I am not looking for us to get ourselves in trouble over this mask issue,” said school board member Donna Korn, during a Wednesday meeting. "There are too many other things that the state has highlighted this district for."

Korn is likely referring to conflicts regarding not only COVID-19 but also the district's response to the Parkland school shooting in 2018.

And it's not just DeSantis who has made noise about the mask mandate. The Broward school board meeting on the mask policy had been slated for Tuesday but had to be rescheduled after a group of anti-mask protesters showed up and refused to wear facial coverings.

During Wednesday's meeting, several parents spoke in opposition to a mask mandate, complaining that facial coverings make it difficult for their children to breathe, learn and socialize.

Korn and another board member, Lori Alhadeff, said initially they expected masks to be optional in the fall. But they changed their minds, as they watched COVID-19 rates climb in South Florida.

“I really wanted to start this school year as normal as possible,” said Alhadeff, “and a few weeks ago, I thought that we were in a position to go back to school without wearing masks and giving parents a choice.

“But now with COVID soaring, and the Delta variant, a lot has changed,” she said.

Alhadeff wants the district to urge parents to vaccinate their kids, perhaps even offering incentives.

Another factor that has changed the debate around masks — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on Tuesday recommending that even vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. Further, the public health agency encouraged everyone in schools to wear masks, especially since children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

School board member Debbi Hixon said people have accused the CDC of “flip flopping” on mask recommendations, since the agency said two months ago vaccinated people do not have to wear masks indoors in most scenarios.

“They weren't flip flopping. They're using data and facts to make the best decisions for the time,” said Hixon. "And I think that we have to do the same thing.”

Hixon, who taught in Broward schools for decades before being elected to the school board last year, said she’s heard from many teachers and administrators who say want masks to be mandated.

Raymond Adderly is senior class president at Fort Lauderdale High School and the Broward County school board’s student advisor. He said he supports the mask mandate, and he cautioned students against thinking they are invincible to the virus. He mentioned a 15-year-old student at J.P. Taravella High School who is in the hospital fighting a severe case of COVID-19.

“Although masks are super inconvenient, I'd rather see students have an inconvenience with breathing, wearing a mask — than having an inconvenience breathing on a ventilator,” Adderly said.

Pushaw, the DeSantis spokeswoman, said the governor wants parents to decide.

“At the end of the day, the Governor trusts parents to weigh the risks and benefits and make the best choices for their own kids,” wrote Pushaw in an email.

School board members agreed to reconsider the policy around Labor Day, in hopes that COVID-19 conditions will have improved, and the mandate could be lifted.

DeSantis Has Hinted A Special Session Could Come If Schools Move to Mandate Masks

The CDC’s latest guidance recommending mask wearing even among the fully vaccinated comes about a week after Governor Ron DeSantis said Florida would not put mask mandates in place at schools.

“We need our kids to be able to be kids. We need them to be able to breathe. It’s terribly uncomfortable for them to do it,” said DeSantis.

The governor indicated he’s willing to call a special legislative session to fight any potential mask mandates if need-be. He said he’s already spoken about it with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

“If we need to bring them back in to do something from a legislative perspective, he’s all in to do it,” said DeSantis.

“And I know that people will do it. At the end of the day, we need to start putting out kids first. We’ve got to look out for their education. Is it really comfortable, is it really healthy for them to be muzzled?

DeSantis said he wants the decision about whether kids should wear masks to be left to their parents.Meanwhile, the CDC’s new recommendations also suggest that vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission, which now includes the entire state of Florida.

FL Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried Plans to Fill COVID-19 Information 'Void'

The office of Florida’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Nikki Fried, will be compiling coronavirus data from the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fried, who is Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services said Wednesday that her office will release this data to the media to fill the void left when the state stopped releasing daily COVID-19 data.

“According to the CDC’s latest update, Florida saw an increase of 58% in new COVID cases in the past week for a total of 67,413 new cases,” said Fried.

The state switched from daily to weekly reporting of COVID-19 cases in June because of a decrease in coronavirus cases and rise in vaccinations. Now, Florida’s positivity rate has been increasing in recent weeks and vaccinations have dropped off.

Lee Health and NCH Report COVID-19 Patient Increases of 600% and 800%

In a statement to news media, Wednesday, Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci said the health system's five hospitals have experienced a 600% increase in patients admitted with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 in the past couple weeks.

“This concerning trend is both threatening the well-being of Southwest Florida and beginning to put a strain on Lee Health’s resources, specifically in the emergency department,” said Antonucci.

“This week, patients in the ED are experiencing longer wait times than normal for this time of year as the coronavirus spreads through our community and the demand for COVID testing has skyrocketed.”

Antonucci reminds the public that testing is available through Lee Convenient Care clinics, walk-up urgent care centers, the Florida Department of Health's drive-thru location in Fort Myers, and retailers like Walgreens and CVS.

Antonucci is strongly urging people to get vaccinated, noting that last week, 89% of the health system's hospitalized COVID patients were not vaccinated and that no vaccinated patients with breakthrough infections have required care in the ICU.

As of Thursday morning, Lee Health reports having 217 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals. Currently 72% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 12% of ICU rooms are available. Lee Health reports having 21 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 43 in intensive care.

The News-Press reports, NCH reports an 800% increase in COVID-19 patients over the past month and as of Wednesday, was treating 95 coronavirus patients in the health system's two hospitals, 79 of whom are unvaccinated.

NCH and the city of Naples have reactivated their joint effort to provide free masks to anyone. That initiative was started in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann is encouraging people to wear masks, but says city officials are not looking to re-impose a mask mandate that expired in April.

Florida Nursing Homes Adjust Testing, Visitation Policies Amid COVID Surge

High levels of community spread and low vaccination rates are putting many nursing homes in Florida at risk for COVID-19 outbreaks. Some facilities are taking extra precautions.

Some nursing homes are seeing a rise in coronavirus cases among staff and residents as COVID-19 surges in Florida and vaccination rates lag. This is leading to some changes in operations.

Facilities in counties with high positivity rates are testing staff more frequently, according to Kristen Knapp, communications director for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents more than 80% of the state's nursing homes. In some cases, that means going from testing monthly to testing twice a week, depending on the level of community spread in the surrounding area.

Mask requirements and infection control protocols have remained in place throughout the pandemic and continue to be a priority, Knapp said.

Visitation changes

Some facilities are also restricting visitation.

Since the state eliminated its visitation guidance for long-term care facilities in March, most homes have been following federal recommendations.

Those include pausing indoor visits in units where a resident or staff member tests positive, and limiting such visits for unvaccinated residents if they live in facilities with vaccination rates below 70% and are also in a community with high levels of transmission. The only exception is for compassionate care, which involves visiting terminally ill patients.

Knapp said some facilities are making their own decisions to move all visits outdoors or to other designated areas, regardless of vaccination status.

“It's really a facility-by-facility decision to make sure that their visitation policies are focused on resident safety,” she said.

Brian Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Families for Better Care, said he appreciates any effort to protect residents, but acknowledges the piecemeal approach can be frustrating for families.

“When we hear on one block they have restrictions in place and on the other block they don't have restrictions in place, families get confused. That's when angst develops,” he said.

The Florida Health Care Association is advising the facilities it represents to communicate closely with families about any changes in policy to avoid confusion, according to Knapp.

Calls to boost vaccinations

A shared concern among Knapp and Lee: the large numbers of unvaccinated staff and residents in Florida’s nursing homes.

About 30% of residents remain unvaccinated according to the latest federal data, some by choice, but many for medical reasons.

Just 44% of staff have gotten shots, giving Florida the second-lowest vaccination rate for nursing home staff in the country.

“I think there's still an opportunity to incentivize inoculation,” said Lee, suggesting the government use nursing home fines to fund financial bonuses for vaccinated staff.

Some organizations, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, have recently mandated health care employees get COVID-19 vaccines. Knapp said FHCA supports any facilities that choose to do that, but said the organization is focused on educating long-term care staff in the hopes they will voluntarily opt to get shots.

“What we’re doing is to try and provide information so people can make informed decisions about the vaccines, and part of that information is showing them that this is safe and effective and the best way to protect their residents,” she said.

Knapp added it’s also important for family members and other visitors to get vaccinated to prevent outbreaks in nursing homes.

Florida's long-term care facilities were hit hard by the pandemic last year and their residents accounted for a large portion of the state's COVID-19 deaths. Rates of severe illness and death among seniors have reduced significantly thanks to the vaccines, but it's unclear if the highly transmissible delta variant will erode some of that progress.

Manatee County Administration Building Sees New COVID-19 Infections

At least one more case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in the Manatee County administration building that was forced to close down in June after two employees died from the virus.

The Herald Tribune reports, County Administrator Scott Hopes briefed County Commissioners on the situation at a meeting Tuesday.

This marks the second outbreak among Manatee County staff, since officials there rescinded all COVID-19 mandates from county buildings in May. In June two IT workers died from the virus and several others were hospitalized.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
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.
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.