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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Miami. DeSantis is doubling down as the state again broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Republican governor insisted Tuesday that the spike will be short-lived. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Miami. DeSantis is doubling down as the state again broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Republican governor insisted Tuesday that the spike will be short-lived. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Florida Adds 20,000+ Cases Thursday, Hospitalizations Still Rising

Florida added 20,133 cases Thursday, an increase over the last three days, continuing an upward surge from COVID-19.

Statewide, another 400 patients were hospitalized in the last day, continuing a record-breaking surge of patients. Currently, more than 12,888 people are hospitalized statewide – and nearly 2,600 are in the intensive care unit.

“More than 90 percent of the patients that come to the ICU that are really sick, that require mechanical ventilation or almost about to require mechanical ventilation, or the breathing tube to help them breath, they are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Eduardo Oliveira, who works in the ICU at AdventHealth. “The minority that’s vaccinated that comes to the ICU usually has some other problem.”

In Central Florida, the two largest hospital systems together have 1,900 COVID patients and almost 400 of them are in the ICU – most of them on ventilators to help them breathe.

“We’ve seen a significant number of pregnant women,” Oliveira said. “That’s something that’s somewhat different from the first wave. Overwhelmingly they were unvaccinated, and they tend to stay longer in the hospital.”

The breakthrough cases are most often in cancer patients and organ transplant patients who have suppressed immune systems.

Cumulatively in the last week, Florida has recorded more COVID-19 cases and deaths than anywhere else in the U.S.

State Officials Consider Opening School Voucher Program for Parents Opposed to School Mask Mandates

The State Board of Education is set to review a proposed policy, Aug. 6, that would allow forHope Scholarship vouchers to be made available to students in public school districts with mask mandates, whose parents don't want their kids wearing masks in the classroom.

Last Friday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a new executive order, barring school districts from requiring mask-wearing.

Despite the executive order, school district officials in Broward, Duval and Alachua Counties are imposing mask mandates and the Leon County Schools Superintendent is also pushing for the state to allow school districts to impose mask mandates when kids return to class as early as next week.

The Herald Tribune reports, opening up Hope Scholarships to parents looking to avoid mask mandates, would let them transfer their children to another public school, or get taxpayer-funded tuition to a private school that doesn't require mask wearing.

The move could be an acknowledgement from the DeSantis administration that it doesn't have the authority to override local school districts' mask policies.

DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding from districts that require mask-wearing, but attorney for the statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, Ron Meyer, tells the Herald Tribune, Florida law is on the side of the school districts. Meyer notes that when DeSantis forced the reopening of brick and mortar schools last year, the state was under an emergency declaration.

Without the emergency declaration in place, Meyer says the state constitution gives school districts broad authority to set conditions for how schools will open.

Ag Commissioner Fried Asking for Federal Dollars for School Funding

With DeSantis’ executive order barring schools from requiring students to wear masks and threatening to withhold funding to school boards that don’t comply with the directive, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is now asking the federal government for additional school funding that could offset lost state dollars.

DeSantis contends that parents should be able to decide whether their children wear masks, but Democratic politicians including Fried, say they feel school districts should be able to decide whether to have mask requirements.

Speaking at the state capitol Thursday, Fried said she’s looking for a way to get federal money sent directly to local schools, without going through the legislature or state department of education.

“If this governor does what he is threatening to do and holds back money from them if they make the right decision for their communities, first of all I don’t know if that is even constitutional. Second of all, I’m working with the White House to see if there are additional resources that could come down from Washington D.C.,” said Fried.

At least three county school districts, Broward, Alachua and Duval, are moving ahead with efforts to require masks for some or all grade levels with the school year set to begin next week.

Leon County is requesting DeSantis allow a temporary mask mandate for kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Back-To-School Mental Health Tips for Parents & Students

There is a lot on the minds of caregivers and students as the 2021 school year approaches. Amid more than a year of learning during a pandemic with at-home and in-class hybrid teaching and social distancing, schools are on the lookout for signs of student distress.

According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children nationwide ages 3 to 17-years-old have been diagnosed with anxiety, and approximately 1.9 million children within that same age range have been diagnosed with depression.

As schools open their doors during a persisting pandemic, Lori Brooks with Lee County Schools Counseling and Mental Health Services says the district is focusing on prevention and education when intervening on behalf of student mental health.

“It’s education for parents, teachers, for our students, about what are healthy habits they can develop for emotional wellness, physical wellness and then also what do we do when we need to intervene," said Brooks. "If they talk to a teacher or their school counselor, we can connect them to the help that they need, from our school counselors, our social workers, our psychologists, even our licensed mental health professionals. We have a school mental health team at every school.”

Another water to navigate is bullying at school. Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order barring schools in Florida from imposing mask mandates. As school districts decide to enforce that or not, it can leave students open for possible scrutiny from their peers due to their personal choices. Erika Garcia, NAMI Collier County H.U.G.S. Program Bilingual System Navigator, suggests that caregivers sit down with their children prior to the first day of school.

"Although we cannot control the things people say to us, we can control the way in which we react to them, said Garcia. "Roleplay some scenarios and teach your children how they should react and teach them to help their fellow classmates when they see bullying occur. Encourage them to seek the help of a trusted adult."

The Health Under Guided Systems, or H.U.G.S., Program offers early identification of mental health struggles through standardized mental health screenings. Garcia says that the screenings are offered at different early education centers as well as through the early learning programs at Collier County Public Schools. HUGS also offers in-home parenting classes and virtual classes.

But what signs should a parent or peer look for to indicate that a student is struggling with their mental health? Brooks says any negative changes in behavior can indicate the time for a conversation about depression, anxiety and reaching out for some help.

Garcia adds that it is never too early to talk to your children about mental health.

"Knowing the signs of mental health will help you and your child manage what comes next," said Garcia. "Remember that you are not alone."

Caregivers can call their student’s school for more information on how to access any mental health services.

COVID-19 Patients Continue to Increase in SWFL Hospitals/ Elective Surgeries Postponed

The number of people admitted to Lee Health's five hospitals with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 has again increased to 349 patients as of Friday morning, marking an increase from 338 patients on Thursday.

Lee Health has also announced plans to temporarily suspend elective surgeries that require an overnight stay, due to the patient surge.

73% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 10% of ICU rooms are available. Twenty-seven of Lee Health's COVID-19 patients are on ventilators and 61 are in intensive care. The health system reported Thursday that 82.5% of its coronavirus patients are unvaccinated.

After hitting another new record high number of admitted COVID-19 patients, Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials, Thursday, also announced a temporary halt to elective procedures, in order to free up more staff and other resources.

The Herald Tribune reports, the move involves scaling back non-urgent elective procedures that require longer hospital stays. Sarasota Memorial reported a new high of 160 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, which is up from 140 patients on Wednesday and 131 on Monday.

In response, Sarasota Memorial has also expanded its intensive care unit bed capacity. The hospital had 36 coronavirus patients in intensive care as of Thursday.

Meanwhile the NCH Healthcare System in Collier County reported treating 150 COVID-19 patients, Thursday, which is one more than the previous day. Thirteen coronavirus patients were on ventilators and 26 were in the intensive care unit. NCH reports 83% were unvaccinated upon admission.

Surging COVID Cases Force Hospitals to Suspend Elective Surgeries

A recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations isn't just affecting care for those with the disease. Some hospitals are pausing certain services and have longer waits in their emergency rooms.

Most facilities haven't exceeded capacity yet like at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where COVID’s impact has been worse than in other parts of the state. But health systems like BayCare, AdventHealth and Memorial Healthcare System have suspended elective surgeries in some hospitals.

These are nonurgent procedures but, if put off for too long, could cause patients more issues down the road.

BayCare paused all elective surgeries in Hillsborough County and those that require overnight stays in Polk. The decision was made as a “last resort,” said Baycare's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nishant Anand.

“When you cancel electives, you have staff and hospital beds that can be diverted to take care of the sick individuals that need it,” he said. “… Because of COVID right now, what’s happening is that we have more sicker people.”

In Pinellas County, the surge in COVID patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, is delaying help for patients arriving in ambulances.

County administrator Barry Burton voiced his concerns during a budget meeting with commissioners on Tuesday.

“On our ambulance transports, they're waiting – in one case – three hours to be able to offload a patient; in most cases it's delayed,” he said.

Assistant county administrator Lourdes Benedict went on to clarify the average wait time has been one hour, up from about 15 minutes.

"So not acceptable, and it's something we're working on with hospitals," she said.

"Do not delay needed care."

Emergency departments are strained in many communities, according to Dr. Jason Wilson, associate medical director of the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital, which has not yet paused elective procedures.

But he assures those in crisis are not the ones waiting.

"We're not at a place yet where a heart attack patient or a trauma patient or a stroke patient would have any noticeable difference in their care pathway," he said.

Wilson said staff are tired, but they're committed to treating all those in need and have strict infection control measures in place.

He said patients avoiding hospitals due to COVID concerns was a big problem during previous surges, and he doesn't want to see that happen again.

“I feel more safe at my hospital than I do almost anywhere else in this county in a public building because we’re so good at PPE [personal protective equipment], so good at all the social mitigation strategies and the vaccination rates [among staff] are pretty high and we haven’t seen much spread,” Wilson said.

During a press conference at the hospital with Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, TGH CEO John Couris had a similar message to the public:

“Please, if you’re listening to this, do not delay care if you’re out in the community," he said.

"If you have chest pains, if you have stroke symptoms, come to the emergency room, ideally the closest ER to you. Do not delay needed care. Hospitals across the state are open and they’re taking care of people that need health care."

Norwegian Cruise Line Heads to Court Against Florida's Vaccine Passport Ban

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings heads to court Aug. 6. The Miami-based company is requesting that a federal judge overturn Florida’s ban on vaccine passports.

Governor DeSantis says requiring vaccinations intrudes on personal liberties and people should be able to make their own decisions, but U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla, said his policy is dangerous.

“For him to jeopardize the lives of passengers and crew by not allowing the cruise industry to require vaccines and even use the weight of the government to stop them just shows you the callous disregard for human life that he has.,” said Wasserman Schultz.

Norwegian wants to have guests on ships leaving Florida be vaccinated. Its next trip from Miami is on August 15.

CDC’s New Eviction Moratorium Only Covers U.S. Counties with High COVID Transmission – that’s all of Florida

President Joe Biden said he’s buying struggling renters time with a new eviction moratorium that might not pass Constitutional muster. The new, more focused order only extends to areas of high COVID transmission. That includes all of Florida.

For a little over 24 hours, the future of renters facing financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic was uncertain.

Attorney Charles Gallagher III saw the eagerness of those moving eviction filings forward.

“There were significant filings in Pinellas County. There was a rush to the docket, so to speak,” he said. “A rush to the courthouse with some eviction filings during that gap in time. This will protect them now and they’ll be able to have some additional time to get things in order.”

Give them time

The order, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is set to expire Oct. 3. That’s 60 days from when it was issued. But it could come under fire before then.

Last week, Biden said he couldn’t extend the previous moratorium because of a potential Constitutional issue. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had stated any extension would require an act of Congress. The old moratorium expired over the weekend and Congress recessed without taking action. Biden said he worked with Constitutional scholars to figure out options.

The new order was the best one. But during a Tuesday address, the President acknowledged it might not pass a Constitutional test.

“There are a few scholars who say it will and others who say it’s not likely to,” Biden said. “But at a minimum. By the time it gets litigated. It will probably give some additional time while we’re getting that $45 billion out to people who are in fact behind on rent and don’t have the money.”

The new order is similar to the old one. It is not automatic and requires renters to apply for protection. Gallagher said a crucial bit of misinformation has been renters thinking coverage was automatic.

It’s also similar in that renters are only protected if they are being evicted for non-payment. But William Kilgore of the St. Petersburg tenant’s union said landlords have used that aspect as a loophole to force people out.

“There still have been people being evicted right here in the Tampa Bay area,” Kilgore said. “It’s allowed landlords to side skirt it by not renewing people’s leases when their lease agreements are up. By trying to evict them for other things. Such as small violations of the lease agreement that they can find.”


But a major difference is the scope of the moratorium. The previous order covered the whole country. But the current one only covers counties with “high” or “substantial” levels of community transmission. An interactive map showing current levels is available at the CDC website.

Community transmission is calculated using the number of new cases and the cases positivity rate of the last seven days. Counties that fall under the “substantial level.” For 14 consecutive days will lose eviction coverage.

Florida doesn’t have any state-level COVID restrictions. And Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it clear he doesn’t support mask or vaccine mandates. Florida is now reaching record numbers of daily cases and hospitalizations. Children and young adults are also becoming more and more affected by the virus.

All of Florida is covered under the current moratorium.

Slow roller

More hope, however, is out there. The federal government has provided more than $45 billion in rental assistance to people facing eviction. But the rollout has been incredibly slow.

Only two percent of the aid sent to Florida has been distributed. The State has so far received $870 million with another $1.5 billion on the way. Some of the holdup is logistics. Biden is hoping to run the clock. Issuing the potentially illegal order could get renters through until aid can be distributed.

Renters can help with that. Florida has set up the OURFLorida.com rental assistance program. And there are other rental assistance programs available at city and county levels. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has set up a searchable database of available programs.

Kilgore said two months is not enough time.

“The problem is at that pace we’re not gonna have those funds fully distributed until next summer. Two months still is really not enough. We need a moratorium in place until all of this money is distributed.”

The moratorium does not cancel rent or debts, nor does it prevent landlords from collecting interest or charging late fees

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.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.
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.
Verónica Zaragovia