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COVID-19 Morning Report

Yuri Samoilov via Flickr creative commons

Florida Breaks Records for COVID-19 Infections and Hospitalizations

On Saturday, July 31, Florida experienced the highest single-day total number of new COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic with more than 21,600 new cases. Florida has become the national epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for one in five new cases across the country.

On Sunday, Aug. 1, Florida broke another previous record, reporting the highest number of patients hospitalized with the coronavirus in a single day since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.

The AP reports, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 10,170 people in Florida are hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Gov. DeSantis Announces Plans to Bar Schools from Imposing Mask Mandates

Amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections and with the start of a new school year just weeks away, Governor Ron DeSantis, Friday, announced plans to sign an executive order barring schools in Florida from imposing mask mandates.

DeSantis announced the new executive order at a media conference at a Cape Coral restaurant, packed with cheering supporters. Standing at a podium emblazoned with a sign reading “Free to choose,” DeSantis said schools are low risk environments.

“A study out of Brown University looked at case rates at schools in Florida, Massachusetts and New York, and they found, this is a very credible study, no correlation of case rates and mask mandates. In other words, you had schools that did not have mandates that had similar outcomes as the ones that did require it,” said DeSantis.

The Delta variant, which is now responsible for an overwhelming majority of current infections was not a factor in the Brown University study cited by the governor.

“Very soon I’ll be signing an executive order which directs the Florida Department of Education and the Department of Health to issue emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children. We think that that’s the most fair way to do it.”

The latest guidance on the pandemic from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for universal masking in K-12 schools regardless of an individual’s vaccination status. This new guidance is based on the dominance of the highly transmissible and more virulent Delta variant. DeSantis did not mention the Delta variant at Friday’s event, but said “We’re not consigned by what some bureaucracy says.”

Earlier this week, Broward County School District officials decided to make mask wearing mandatory. School districts in Southwest Florida have opted to make mask wearing optional for the coming school year.

As the press conference was wrapping up, the statewide teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association released a statement calling on DeSantis to allow local elected officials to make decisions about COVID protocols based on conditions in their area.

In a statement, FEA President Andrew Spar writes, “Whether it is mandating a pay plan that requires teachers with 15 years of experience to be paid the same as a first-year teacher or telling locally elected officials they cannot enforce recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need. We reject that kind of thinking. Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances.”

Meanwhile, Lee Health reported Friday that the number of coronavirus patients being treated in the health systems hospitals has increased to 238, including 23 on ventilators and 40 in intensive care. These numbers include patients in Cape Coral hospital about five miles from where the governor announced the new pending executive order.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Discusses Vaccine Myths as "No Visitor" Policy Begins

Starting Monday, August 2nd, Sarasota Memorial Hospital will institute a "no visitors" policy with limited exceptions in an effort to protect patients and staff from rising cases of COVID-19.

“We know how important visitor support is to our patients, but these new restrictions are for everyone’s protection,” said Chief Medical Officer James Fiorica, MD.

According to a news release from the hospital, there will be limited exceptions to the "no visitor" policy; for extraordinary circumstances such as end-of-life care, and limited support persons will be allowed for patients in the Labor & Delivery/Mother-Baby units. Exceptions will also be made for children admitted to the Pediatric Unit or Neonatal Intensive Care Units. A support person also may be permitted to wait in a designated area while patients undergo surgery and certain types of procedures or therapy.

For those who cannot visit, SMH staff will be available to help connect families and friends via video calling apps such as Skype or FaceTime. The hospital will provide patients with iPads and technical assistance if needed.

Meanwhile, 20 more COVID-19 patients have been admitted at Sarasota Memorial since Thursday, bringing the total to 119, twenty-nine of which are in intensive care. Nearly all admitted patients are unvaccinated.

According to Dr. Fiorica, vaccinated people who are infected are having much milder symptoms or none at all while unvaccinated patients are having far more severe symptoms- in spite of being younger and stronger than patients in the first few waves of the pandemic.

His concern is people who continue to refuse to be vaccinated.

“Sometimes one on one education, trying to dispel some of the myths that are out there. Uh, there’s no question that when you go through our ICU and you see some of those patients in there, I think they would wish they could reverse time a little bit,” Dr. Fiorica said.

One prevalent myth is that the vaccine is somehow unsafe because it was given Emergency use approval by the FDA. But he points out the safety of the vaccine had to be fully tested for that level of approval. Full approval involves longer-term data collection for how long the vaccine lasts and whether a booster may eventually be needed. Full approval is not withheld over safety concerns for people receiving the shots.

“It’s more of the long term- when will a booster be needed, when will antibody levels drop...those are the long-term issues that we would like to know what we don’t know right now. But I think that we’re fortunate to have the emergency use for this vaccine or we would be much worse off,” said Dr. Fiorica.

He added that mask-wearing, washing hands, and socially distancing, whether vaccinated or not, can still help slow the spread- but vaccination is everyone’s best protection for now.

NCH Imposes Vaccination Mandate for Staff

The NCH Healthcare system in Collier County is imposing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees. The new mandate takes effect September 16.

The Naples Daily News reports, NCH announced the new mandate on Friday. Previously NCH had planned to only require vaccination for new employees, contractors and volunteers beginning in mid-August.

Becker's Hospital Review reports that about 75% of hospital systems across the country are now requiring employees to be vaccinated.

Manatee County Confirms Another COVID-19 Death Among County Staff

Another Manatee County employee has died from the coronavirus. The Herald Tribune reports, County Administrator Scott Hopes confirmed the death during a news conference Friday.

The utility department worker had been under quarantine due to COVID-19 infection when his spouse found him deceased. The spouse, who is also a county utility department employee, has also contracted the virus. Neither were vaccinated.

A COVID-19 outbreak forced a shutdown of the Manatee County administration building in June after two other employees died from the virus. This marks the second outbreak among Manatee County staff, since officials there rescinded all COVID-19 mandates from county buildings in May.

Between May 3 and July 30, 41 infections have been reported among Manatee County staff.

DeSantis Resists Calls for COVID-19 Emergency Declaration

Local officials in Brevard County and in the Jacksonville region are among those calling on Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency amid the current resurgence of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

One hospital system in Jacksonville reported Thursday that its hospitals were at maximum capacity and that emergency departments are at a critical point. In Brevard County, two hospitals have begun setting up treatment tents outside their emergency departments.

Last week Lee Health officials reported a 600% increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions in the last few weeks and NCH reported an 800% increase.

DeSantis continues to oppose new pandemic restrictions.

Florida Distributes 2% of Federal Funds for Renters as Eviction Moratorium Expires

A nationwide moratorium on evictions that was put in place amid the pandemic expired Sunday, July 31. Housing advocates are expressing concern that the end of the CDC moratorium will result in hundreds of thousands of Floridians being evicted from their homes.

The AP reports, Florida received $870 million in federal funds to help renters who've struggled to keep up with rent payments, but so far has only distributed 2% of that money.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough Vows Safety for Veterans During Florida Visit

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough talked about recent efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Friday while in Tampa, including his decision to mandate health workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.

This week the VA became the first federal agency to impose such requirements. About 115,000 of the agency’s most patient-facing employees, including doctors, nurses, podiatrists and chiropractors, have two months to get fully vaccinated or face losing their jobs.

Many veterans who use the VA are older and have underlying health conditions. With the highly transmissible delta variant spreading rapidly, McDonough told WUSF he can’t take any chances.

“Given that our veterans have more complicated health care situations, I think that it is my responsibility to do everything within my power to ensure that when they come into a VA facility, they can have confidence that they will be safe and not be exposed,” he said.

To date, 12,739 veterans and 148 VA employees have died from COVID-19, with some recent deaths attributed to the delta variant.

McDonough said the mandate applied to employees hired under a code of law known as Title 38, under which he said he has “the clear ability to require this vaccination without fear that it’s going to be challenged.”

The secretary said he is currently examining legal possibilities for requiring more VA staff to get inoculated.

“Especially in a state like Florida with more than 1.5 million veterans, you know, the third-highest veteran population by state in the union, the most important thing any of us can do to protect these heroes is to get vaccinated,” he said.

COVID surge not stopping care

McDonough was in the state visiting VA facilities, some of which include the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg and the Miami VA Medical Center. When visiting the latter, he said staff told him there was already an uptick in vaccinations since the mandate was announced on Monday.

The department is also now requiring people wear masks in VA buildings, regardless of their vaccination status, in areas where there is high transmission of COVID-19 — which includes Florida.

Like civilian hospitals, McDonough said VA facilities in the state are seeing an uptick in patients. He said he talked with leadership at the Tampa VA about how they’re handling the situation.

"They've assured me that they're planning for this surge. They're really being careful to not have to change the provision of care that we're giving," he said.

The secretary wants vets to know that telehealth options are still available for those who would rather not come in, but that the VA is open for all forms of health care, including getting COVID vaccines.

More than 3.1 million VA patients are fully vaccinated, just over half the number of vets who receive care through the agency.

McDonough said he will continue to encourage vaccinations while addressing thousands of vets at the Disabled American Veterans and Auxiliary National Convention in downtown Tampa on Saturday.

Disney Mandates COVID-19 Vaccines for Employees

The Walt Disney Company is now joining other businesses in requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The AP reports, all salaried and non-union hourly employees in the U.S. who work on site have 60 days to get inoculated.

Disney employees still working from home will be required to show proof of vaccination before returning to the workplace.

U.S. Virgin Islands A Tourism Rebound Story in Caribbean — But Delta Variant A Threat

The Caribbean relies heavily on tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic — and the disappearance of cruise ship travelers — have hit the islands’ economies especially hard.

But one Caribbean destination that’s bounced back more robustly is the U.S. Virgin Islands, or USVI: St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and 50 other minor isles.

That’s in no small part because the U.S. island territory has had access to U.S.-supplied vaccines and economic relief. Those factors — plus the USVI’s testing, vaccination and mask-wearing requirements for visitors — have given the territory a more COVID-safe image.

“For us in the USVI, people in the hospitality industry seem to be vaccinated at a higher rate than the rest of the community, which of course helps our tourism product because people don’t go on vacation to get sick,” said Joseph Boschulte, the U.S. Virgin Islands tourism commissioner, in an interview with WLRN.

Boschulte was in Miami over the weekend partly to address the COVID virus’ delta variant and how it challenges the U.S. Virgin Islands’ ability to safely retain the non-cruise-ship tourism that had been growing strongly this year, raising St. Croix's hotel occupancy to 90% recently.

“The situation is fluid," Boschulte conceded. "With the new information we’re receiving, we’re very concerned that we don’t get complacent — because as important as protecting public health, we also have to keep the islands alive.”

Because of the delta surge in the Caribbean and the U.S. — which Boschulte said has raised the daily number of new cases in the U.S. Virgin Islands in recent weeks — USVI Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has ordered schools there to open virtually this month and not in person.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

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.
Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. He has reported on Latin America for almost 30 years - for Newsweek as its Mexico City bureau chief from 1990 to 1996, and for Time as its Latin America bureau chief in Mexico and Miami (where he also covered Florida and the U.S. Southeast) from 1996 to 2013.