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COVID-19 Morning Report

Carlos Anacleto, Jorge Tase
Marta Lavandier/AP
Carlos Anacleto closes his eyes as he receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Jorge Tase, as others wait their turn, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. On Tuesday, the CDC added more than 50,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state over the previous three days, pushing the seven-day average to one the highest counts since the pandemic began, an eightfold increase since July 4. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Florida Continues to Lead Nationwide COVID-19 Surge

Over the weekend, the nationwide COVID-19 surge surpassed 100,000 new confirmed daily infections. The AP reports, that milestone was last exceeded during the surge this past winter. The current resurgence is being driven by the more transmissible Delta variant and lower vaccination rates in Florida and other Southern states.

Nationwide, 50% of residents are fully vaccinated and more than 70% of adults have received at least a first vaccine dose. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, more than 44,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, marking a jump of 30% in just one week and nearly four times the rate of hospitalizations in June.

Florida accounts for one in five new COVID-19 infections nationwide, which is more than any other state. The Tallahassee Democrat reports, the state broke another record for most reported new cases in a single day with 23,903 cases reported Friday, according to the CDC.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported, Saturday, that there were 13,750 COVID-19 patients in Florida hospitals, marking another record high.

Florida Ed Board Approves Emergency Rules on Attendance, Student COVID Transfers

Florida’s State Board of Education approved two emergency rules related to the ongoing pandemic, further riling up worried parents who are preparing to send their kids back to school classrooms this month.

The emergency rules are a response to Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order that prevents public schools from mandating students wear masks. The first rule involves how students will be counted for attendance: kids who must quarantine due to coronavirus exposure or infection will be counted present if they have to learn at home.

“The aim is to avoid learning loss for any students who are temporarily quarantined so that the students will not be disadvantaged," said Florida Department of Education General Counsel Matt Mears.

Parent comments turned to concerns over HOW quarantined students would learn at home. Monroe County School Board member Sue Waltanski notes many districts, like hers, dropped their hybrid remote learning programs.

“This year those were canceled and we were told kids had to learn through full virtual or in-person so I am wondering if this rule would alleviate that requirement and allow us to go back to our innovative learning program which was used to teach kids in quarantine…I hope it does," Waltanski said.

Families may still have access to the state’s Florida Virtual School and district-run virtual schools, but students cannot just pop in and out of those programs.

Other parents say they don’t want their kids quarantined at all, and during the phone hearing, Fort Lauderdale resident Chris Nelson denied COVID-19 is real.

"…We know neither of these things have been isolated. This is a documented fact," he said, only to be cut off by Board Chairman Tom Grady.

The virus HAS been isolated. It is real, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is supplying strains of it to infectious disease researchers.

The second rule now in effect would allow students who are bullied over COVID to transfer to other schools using the state’s HOPE scholarship voucher. Some parents argue the rule is irresponsible and on the wrong side of public health. Others say it doesn’t go far enough. Dr. Hajar Kadivar, a physician in Pinellas County, says the rule is problematic for other reasons:

“I am concerned about the use of harassment. Medical protocol is not harassment. Public health is not harassment," she said.

Mears notes the rule would also apply to families whose kids are bullied for wearing masks. Students can transfer to another public school or private school.

Following DeSantis’ recent executive order preventing districts from mandating students wear masks, some districts are publicly considering challenging the order, some are considering defying it all together, and others have moved ahead with different mandates—like requiring staff and teachers to wear masks.

SWFL Public Schools Start Tuesday/Lee Schools Impose Mask Policy with Opt Out Option

Students in K-12 schools throughout Southwest Florida return to the classroom Tuesday, Aug. 10, including in the Charlotte, Collier, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota County school districts. Those districts account for a total of more than 245,900 students.

Officials in most Southwest Florida school districts have made mask wearing optional. In Lee County, officials announced over the weekend that there will be a mask mandate.

Parents who want to opt their kids out of mask wearing can do so by filling out a form that the district said it will make available by Monday evening.

The Lee School district is strongly encouraging teachers and other staff to wear masks.

The school district's mandate is in compliance with an emergency order from State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, that says schools can impose mask mandates as long as they give parents the ability to opt out.

CDC guidance calls for universal masking indoors for K-12 schools for anyone two and older, regardless of vaccination status.

Diocese of Venice Imposes School Mask Mandate

Private Catholic school students within the Diocese of Venice in Southwest Florida return to the classroom Monday, Aug. 9, and many parents are expressing anger over a last-minute decision to impose a mandatory mask policy.

The News-Press reports, the diocese's Bishop Frank Dewane issued a statement, late Thursday, indicating that their previous optional mask policy would temporarily be a mandatory mask policy because of the spread of highly contagious and more virulent Delta variant.

The Diocese of Venice covers more than 5,000 students in 15 k-12 schools in ten counties including Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota.

Bishop Dewane said mandatory masking will be required for indoor instruction in counties where the COVID-19 positivity rate is 10% or higher. None of the counties within the diocese currently have positivity rates below 14%.

Some parents say they've instructed their kids not to comply with the mask policy and more than a dozen parents held a peaceful protest Monday morning outside Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers.

COVID-19 Testing Expanded in Sarasota

Growing demand for COVID-19 testing amid the current resurgence in infections and hospitalizations has prompted the city of Sarasota to re-open a free walk-up testing site at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex at 1845 34th St., Sarasota.

The testing site is being run in partnership with Sarasota-based Lab Services and the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County. The site re-opened Saturday, and will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until at least Aug. 17. The site will be closed on Sundays.

Photo identification will be required and no appointment is necessary. Anyone can be tested regardless of symptoms and there will be assistance available for Spanish speakers.

The Herald Tribune reports, the testing site will offer PCR tests, which return results within 24 hours and the rapid antigen test, which can produce results in as little as 30 minutes.

Another free drive-thru testing site with no appointment necessary is also open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the site of the former Sarasota Kennel Club property.

The city of North Port is also partnering with the Health Department and Lab Services to offer a walk-in testing site at Dallas White Park at 5900 Greenwood Ave, North Port, starting Monday, Aug. 9. That site will also operate Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Norwegian Cruise Line Lawsuit Temporarily Blocks Florida’s Vaccine Passport Ban

A federal judge, Sunday night, granted the Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line's request to temporarily block a Florida law that bars businesses and government entities from requiring proof of vaccination status.

The AP reports, the judge granted a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by Norwegian, as the company seeks to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination status of passengers before they board a ship.

An attorney for the state argues the law, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in May, is intended to prevent discrimination against passengers who won't get the vaccine.

Norwegian says vaccine proof is necessary to safely resume cruises. A Norwegian cruise voyage is scheduled to depart from Miami Aug. 15, for the first time since the pandemic shut down the cruise industry in the spring of 2020.

Hospital Leaders, DeSantis Tout COVID Antibody Treatment

Florida hospital leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis are urging more people to take advantage of monoclonal antibodies, a COVID-19 treatment that is proving to be very effective at preventing serious illness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently expanded its emergency use authorization for the therapy. It's meant for people who recently tested positive for the virus or are at high risk for developing severe COVID-19.

The treatment typically involves infusing lab-made antibodies designed to fight the coronavirus into patients through an IV, although the FDA now allows injections in some cases. Some health systems are offering it in hospitals, others in outpatient clinics.

(Scroll down for frequently asked questions)

Tampa General Hospital was the first in Florida to offer the treatment and has since given the antibodies to more than 1,600 patients since the FDA first issued an emergency use authorization for the drug cocktail last fall, according to Dr. Kami Kim, an infectious disease specialist with the hospital and the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine.

Kim said most patients report feeling better within a day or two, or never develop symptoms at all.

"These are really, really important treatments, they help people recover more quickly, so if you can make people have less severe disease, obviously they're not going to end up in our hospital, in our ICU and potentially dying," she said.

Kim added that helping reduce the amount of virus in patients’ systems makes them less likely to pass it along to someone else.

She said similar medicines have been used in the past to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Patients have to act quickly

Patients receiving infusions can expect to have the IV in for about an hour, and then they have to wait another hour or so for hospital staff to monitor them for any adverse reactions. Then they go home to continue their quarantine as necessary.

The federal government covers the cost of the treatment, though some facilities around the country charge patients for administrating the medicine. Interested patients should consult with the facility offering the treatment and with their health insurance provider, if necessary. Tampa General provides it for free.

Gov. DeSantis, a vocal critic of COVID prevention efforts like mask-wearing, has been touting the therapy lately. He talked about monoclonal antibodies with hospital CEO’s from Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Broward County during a virtual roundtable discussion on Wednesday.

“We hear a lot about non-pharmaceutical interventions, whether it’s restrictions or masks, or all this. We really don’t hear as much, at least publicly, about, if you do get infected, what are your options?” DeSantis said.

He held a press conference about the therapy at Tampa General the next day.

Speaking at the hospital, DeSantis cautioned time is of the essence when it comes to this treatment. Experts say patients only have about a week after symptoms appear for it to work well.

"If you test positive and kind of just wait and hope that it doesn't get worse and it starts to get very severe, by that time doing a monoclonal antibody treatment is probably not going to be something that's going to turn the tide," he said.

Preventative uses

The FDA now allows people with weakened immune systems to get the treatment in some cases regardless of a positive test, since they don't respond as well to vaccines.

Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System in Miami, told the governor they are now offering it to organ transplant patients as a preventative treatment.

“That is a family group that is definitely in the profile of the immunosuppressed environment, and we’re prophylactically doing those patients and seeing a big result from that,” he said, acknowledging it’s only been for a couple weeks since the FDA only recently authorized this type of use.

Patients who test positive for the virus can get the treatment regardless of their vaccination status, but the rules about getting it ahead of that are more complicated.

In addition to allowing immunocompromised patients to use it preventatively, the FDA also permits unvaccinated patients who have been exposed to someone infected with the virus to do so, or who are likely to be exposed because they live or work in an institutional setting like a nursing home or prison.

Not a vaccine substitute

Although federal health officials consider being unvaccinated a condition that puts someone at high risk for developing severe COVID-19, they stress that the antibody therapy is not meant to be used as a vaccine substitute.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is still the best way to prevent severe illness and curb the pandemic, health experts say.

While there seems to be ample supplies of the drug cocktail available now, it’s unclear how long that will last as word gets out about its effectiveness.

For example, Tampa General CEO John Couris said their clinic is doing 35-40 treatments a day and recently expanded operating hours to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

With Hillsborough County reporting thousands of new coronavirus cases a week recently, it would be extremely difficult to offer everyone the treatment within that week-long window of effectiveness, even with other health systems in the region like BayCare offering it.

Hospital leaders are continuing to urge people to get vaccinated and use other preventative measures to protect themselves so to reduce the number of cases in Florida.

Common questions:

What are monoclonal antibodies?

These are lab-made proteins built to help create an immune response within the body that it may not be able to do on its own. In this case, the antibodies are designed to target the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Data suggests the treatment is effective at preventing severe illness and death.

Who qualifies for the treatment?

People ages 12 and older who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Immunocompromised individuals who have recently been exposed to someone infected with the virus or are likely to be exposed. Unvaccinated people who have recently been exposed to the virus or are at risk because they live or work in an institutional setting, i.e. nursing homes or prisons.

How much does it cost?

Treatment is free in most cases.

Where can I get it?

Some health systems are offering it in their emergency departments while others provide the treatment at outpatient clinics or through home health agencies. Contact your nearest health facility to find out. In some cases, you need a prescription from your physician but some hospitals are writing the prescriptions for patients on site.

Can I use this treatment instead of getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

No. The treatment is not a vaccine substitute and everyone who is eligible for vaccination is still encouraged to get the shot, unless medical conditions prevent doing so.

Is this new technology?

No, according to Dr. Kami Kim with Tampa General Hospital. She explained similar medicines have been used for years when treating cancer and autoimmune disorders. Developers adapted the medical technology to produce antibodies geared toward fighting COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan Says Vaccine Helped Him Fight COVID-19/Stops Short of Encouraging Others to get Vaccinated

Florida U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 helped make symptoms of his recent infection less severe.

Buchanan tested positive in late July and reported only experiencing mild flu-like symptoms.

The Herald Tribune reports, despite his personal experience, Buchanan has stopped short of encouraging others to get vaccinated, calling the decision "a personal thing.”

Florida's status as the epicenter of the current nationwide surge in infections and hospitalizations has led to greater scrutiny of how public officials are talking about the vaccine. Polls show that vaccine hesitancy is greater among people who identify as Republican compared to Democrats.

Governor Ron DeSantis has been a vocal opponent of mandates and restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

Republican U.S. Senator and former Florida Governor Rick Scott did recently take the step of encouraging people to get vaccinated on Twitter.

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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.
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.