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COVID-19 Morning Report

Kethlee Sanfririn
Marta Lavandier/AP
Kethlee Sanfririn gets tested for Covid-19 after returning from an overseas trip, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida continues to record high positive and hospitalization cases, stemming from the highly contagious delta variant. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

DeSantis, Defiant Districts Square Off Over Mandatory Student Masking

Gov. Ron DeSantis says school districts that choose mask mandates could see their school board and superintendent’s salaries cut. The move is the latest salvo in an escalating fight over whether students should have to wear masks amid rising coronavirus infections.

Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna became the latest to defy Governor Ron DeSantis. Hanna says students in grades Pre-K through 8th will have to wear masks for the first month of school.

“Sometimes we may agree to disagree but let’s do it in a respectful manner," Hanna said during a press conference announcing the move." We all want what’s best, we do. I just think this is the wise decision on what’s going on here in Tallahassee and Leon County with the numbers we’re seeing.”

He described the issue as an "emotional" one for him.

Previously, Hanna backed DeSantis’ approach to mask wearing—saying students and their families should decide that for themselves. But he later backtracked after the number of pediatric COVID-19 infections began to rise. More than two dozen of the city’s pediatricians signed on to a letter urging Hanna to put a mask mandate in place. Leon’s decision echoes that of at least four other districts. Hillsboro, Alachua and Broward and Duval are all mandating students wear masks for a time.

Gov. DeSantis has warned defiant districts that their superintendent and school board salaries could be cut. When asked Tuesday during a press conference in South Florida whether that’s still an option, DeSantis deflected, saying parents should have ultimate decision-making authority on the issue.

“I know you have a couple district’s who’ve done stuff recently. But at the end of the day, giving parents that option…you’re free to recommend, you can encourage whatever you want. I just don’t think you can override the rights and decisions of parents," the governor said.

Through an executive order, DeSantis made student masking optional, and the State Board of Education, which oversees public schools, recently issued an emergency rule allowing parents to transfer their kids to other public or private schools using vouchers if they’re children are harassed or bullied over masks.

There are questions about whether that executive order, and the board’s emergency rule making, are valid. State education Board member Ben Gibson is in DeSantis' corner.

“I’ve seen reports that we don’t have the authority to do this. I think the rule is narrowly tailored, it aligns to the statute that created the HOPE scholarship. And the board has absolute authority to define harassment further, which we’ve done," Gibson said, noting the state board has the power to withhold funding from districts that defy the rules.

Hanna says any move to withhold funding from school districts would hurt children.

Meanwhile, a legal battle over masking is brewing. According to Bloomberg News, a group of parents have filed suit over DeSantis’ executive order in Leon County Court, and WLRN Public Media reports a second mask lawsuit has been filed in South Florida.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter, Tuesday, indicating that Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna and School Board Chairwoman Joy Bowen are being investigated for bucking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mandatory mask ban. A similar letter was sent to Alachua County School district officials demanding they also explain their decisions to defy the governor's executive order. The Leon School District's mandatory mask policy has been extended to all grades, but now includes an option for families to opt-out with a parent's signature. The district says no students will be turned away from school for not wearing masks.

Democratic Senators have pledged to create a GoFundMe campaign to help repay any school leaders who lose their salaries by trying to put a student mask requirement in place.

'Bring It!': Broward School Board Mandates Masks, Plans Legal Challenge Targeting DeSantis Ban

The Broward County school board on Tuesday voted again to require facial coverings in classrooms, even as the DeSantis administration has threatened to dock the pay of local education leaders who refuse to comply with his executive order banning mask mandates.

The board voted 8-1 to adopt new state rules from the departments of education and health governing how to reopen amid the worsening COVID-19 surge — with the exception of one provision that directs school districts to offer parents the opportunity to “opt out” their children from wearing masks.

The board also approved a plan to hire an outside lawyer to challenge that rule.

“Being afraid that we're going to lose our job, be removed from office, fined, lose our salary — bring it! Bring it,” said school board member Nora Rupert. “Because when you put that out there, it makes me work harder for our school children and our families.”

Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the board after her daughter Alyssa was killed in the 2018 Parkland school shooting, was the lone dissenting vote.

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of Broward County school district employees were among those asking board members to challenge DeSantis during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Our people are out in the front lines every day,” said Jim Silvernale, who works for the Federation of Public Employees. His union represents non-instructional employees, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff.

“They're concerned. They're scared. We want to see the mask mandate,” he said.

Broward has joined two other Florida school districts, so far — Alachua and Leon counties — that intend to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis. His office did not immediately return a request for comment.

This week, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter to the superintendents in Alachua and Leon, telling them to allow parents to “opt out” or risk losing their salaries. Corcoran is the former Republican speaker of the Florida House, and he was DeSantis’ pick for the job overseeing public schools and community colleges statewide.

Meanwhile, the fight over masks in Florida schools is also playing out in court. Parents from Broward and Palm Beach counties are among those that signed on to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of DeSantis’ executive order and the new regulations that were adopted to implement it.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday afternoon, as the plaintiffs push for an injunction that would block the ban on mask mandates from being enforced, at least temporarily. Many students around the state go back to school this week.

Why even have elections if the governor is just going to dictate everything when you don't agree?

Broward School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood

Palm Beach County students started Tuesday, and those in the Florida Keys will return to classrooms Friday. Broward and Miami-Dade will follow in the coming weeks.

The lawsuit and others challenging DeSantis’ executive order argue it violates the provisions in the Florida Constitution that guarantee schools are safe and also that locally elected school board members have authority over them.

“The governor doesn't get to trump your decision,” state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, stressed to school board members during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “This executive order that was issued — it is a gross overstep and abuse of power by the governor."

Broward school board chair Rosalind Osgood compared the governor’s maneuvering to voter suppression, since voters elected their school board members to represent their interests.

"The power of the voters in Broward County is totally being eliminated and ignored,” Osgood said. “Why even have elections if the governor is just going to dictate everything when you don't agree?"

Also Tuesday, two other South Florida school board members spoke out against DeSantis. Lucia Baez-Geller of Miami-Dade County and Dr. Debra Robinson of Palm Beach County participated in a statewide virtual press conference hosted by the Florida Democratic Party. School board seats are nonpartisan positions.

Each board member brings a unique perspective to this particular debate. Baez-Geller was a teacher for 15 years before leaving the classroom to run for school board. Robinson is a retired internal medicine specialist.

“All I'm asking for today is that the governor stop threatening us … and allow us to put this proven, time-tested, non-invasive measure to prevent illness and death in place,” Robinson said.

The statewide teachers' union also released the results of a new survey Tuesday, showing there are nearly 5,000 teaching vacancies throughout the state.

According to the Florida Education Association, that's nearly 40% more unfilled teacher positions than two years ago — before the pandemic.

Golisano Children’s Hospital Sees Surge in Pediatric Patients as Schools Reopen

The ongoing surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations largely driven by the Delta variant has resulted in an exponential increase in pediatric patients requiring treatment and hospitalization in Lee Health’s Golisano Children’s Hospital in Fort Myers. The start of a new school year, with mask wearing optional, is raising concerns among local healthcare professionals.

Physicians with Golisano Children’s Hospital held a media conference, Tuesday, on the first day of classes for public school students in Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Manatee and Sarasota Counties in Southwest Florida. They shared their recent experiences with children sick with COVID-19.

Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci said the community is facing a crisis with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations reaching “unprecedented proportion.”

“Children under 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet, and the children in our community who get COVID-19 are getting sick enough to be hospitalized. I think it’s important to recognize that during this entire pandemic, we would average one or two children in Golisano Children’s Hospital with COVID and today we have 14 patients,” said Antonucci.

“Fourteen children that are sick enough to be in the hospital here in Golisano and four of those are in the intensive care unit.”

Pediatric Hospitalist Dr. Salomon Abitbol said pediatric admissions due to COVID-19 have increased unexpectedly in the last two weeks, noting that sick pediatric patients currently receiving treatment at the hospital range in age from 5-weeks-old to 18-years-old.

“In the very young ones, the two-months, the five-week-old, its these very persistent high fevers. And again, I don’t know how this child, this five-week-old who’s positive for COVID is going to react,” said Dr. Abitbol.

“It’s just like any other viral situation, but when you have a child five weeks old who’s having persistently high fevers, 103º, 104º, all night, well, you can imagine the parents and you can imagine our concern as well.”

Dr. Abitbol said another new development has been the emergence of multi-systemic inflammatory syndrome response in kids who’d been sick with COVID two or three weeks ago. He said it’s a generalized inflammatory response that affects most organ systems in the body.

“Our job is to figure out which is the most affected. Is it going to be the brain: encephalitis? Is it going to be the lungs: pneumonia? Is it going to be the kidneys: nephritis? Is it a generalized situation? I saw a pulmonary embolism on a 13-year-old girl the other day and that’s very rare in the pediatric community,” said Dr. Abitbol.

Golisano Children’s Hospital Pediatric Emergency Room physician Dr. Alfredo Vargas also weighed in at Tuesday’s media conference, also emphasizing the alarming increase in pediatric COVID-19 patients coming to the hospital for treatment.

“Some come in and they are very very ill. Others appear to be more viral, respiratory and sometimes GI (gastrointestinal) symptoms, but the astonishing thing is…a year ago, when people were talking about, we were in the height of the pandemic, virtually seeing very few pediatric patients, and now it’s pretty much the opposite,” said Dr. Vargas.

“We’re in this stage now, where the number of pediatric cases is rising exponentially, larger and larger every day. They’re not all requiring hospitalization, thankfully, but there definitely are more and more children that are having to be admitted for it.”

Dr. Antonucci stressed that the now dominant Delta variant is very different from what healthcare workers were battling last year.

“It is much more contagious. It is affecting children at a higher rate than the Alpha variant and the original COVID-19 virus did and we’re seeing those numbers in our hospital.”

The Lee County School District is imposing a mask mandate for students that parents can opt out of by filling out a form. Lee Health Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist and Interim Chief of Quality & Patient Safety Dr. Stephanie Stovall said the health system supports the mandate, but has a message for parents opposed to masking.

“I urge you as parents to consider holding off on opting out. Let’s let this surge settle down, and then hopefully we can get back to normal lives again. I truly believe that’s the best thing for your students, the best thing for our patients and for our community,” said Dr. Stovall.

“This surge right now is worse than we’ve ever seen. It’s taxing our system, it’s taxing our healthcare workers and most importantly, it’s really affecting the most vulnerable in our population and that’s our children, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Overall, Lee Health reported another record-breaking increase, Tuesday, in total COVID-19 hospitalized patients throughout the system’s five hospitals with 455 patients, including 64 in the ICU and 35 on ventilators. Comparatively, the health system reported just 35 hospitalized patients at the end of May and 163 patients two weeks ago.

Throughout the recent surge, Dr. Antonucci says that 80-85% of all hospitalized COVID-19 patients have been unvaccinated. Lee Health officials continue to encourage mask-wearing and for anyone who hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet, to do so.

Lee Health operates a vaccination community clinic out of Gulf Coast Medical Center. The clinic takes appointments and walk-ins on Tuesdays and Fridays from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Residents can make their vaccination appointments online here. Lee Health’s pediatric mobile clinic is also traveling the county offering vaccines to eligible kids and their parents.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital COVID-19 Patient Population Reaches Record High Again

Sarasota Memorial Hospital's COVID-19 population rose to 201 patients, Tuesday, also breaking another new record high. The Herald Tribune reports, the previous record high number of hospitalized coronavirus patients at Sarasota Memorial was set in July of 2020, but that record was surpassed at the beginning of last week, and has been setting new record highs each consecutive day since. 44 COVID-29 patients are in the intensive care unit.

More than a quarter of the hospital's admitted patients are now COVID-19 patients, prompting hospital officials to postpone elective surgeries to free up staff and other resources. Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and Lee Health have done the same.

Sarasota Memorial, Doctors Hospital, Manatee Memorial Hospital, Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, Lee Health and NCH are all restricting visitation in an effort to limit exposure to the virus.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials say 89% of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated.

Finger Pointing Continues Over COVID-19 Numbers Reporting

Florida health officials and the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis said late Monday that the number of new COVID-19 infections reported publicly by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was wrong.

The CDC posted information that there were more than 56,000 new cases of COVID-19 in Florida on Saturday and Sunday, but the Florida Department of Health said that there were around 35,000, marking a difference of more than 21,000 infections.

Finger pointing over the data comes as the numbers of hospitalizations for patients with COVID-19 increases. Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running for governor, told reporters early Tuesday that the blame for the data discrepancy lies with the DeSantis administration.

“This confusion would not have happened if the governor and the Florida Department of Health had been publicly releasing daily COVID updates, as they had been until the first week of June of this year,” said Fried.

Citing the dropping number of cases as a reason that it was no longer needed, the DeSantis administration stopped reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths in early June. Speaking later Tuesday, DeSantis said the CDC misreported weekend case numbers, while hinting the daily state reports may return.
“We are trying to figure out if that has been corrected and if not, whether it would just make more sense to maybe at least put out something. So, stay tuned on that. We’ll see what happens,” said DeSantis.

The surge in recent COVID-19 cases and deaths is attributed to the delta variant of the coronavirus, especially among people who are not vaccinated against the disease.

Celebrity Cruise Line CEO Says Unvaccinated Passengers Can Sail with Restrictions

Governor DeSantis signed an executive order banning cruise ship companies from requiring proof of vaccination before passengers can board. Celebrity Cruise Line CEO Lisa Lutoff Perlo said her company is following that order to the letter.

"The State of Florida does not tell us we can't ask; they tell us we can't 'require.' And so we are working within those constraints to ensure that we live up to our commitment as a brand that we will sail at at least 95% vaccinated."

In order to accomplish this, she said her cruise line was placing several restrictions on passengers who refused to provide proof of vaccination. Perlo, the first female chief of any U.S. cruise line, made her remarks online to members of the Economic Club of Florida at their Tallahassee meeting.

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.

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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.