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COVID-19 Morning Report

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. President Joe Biden has called school district superintendents in Florida and Arizona, praising them for doing what he called “the right thing” after their respective boards implemented mask requirements in defiance of their Republican governors amid growing COVID-19 infections. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Chris O'Meara/AP
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. President Joe Biden has called school district superintendents in Florida and Arizona, praising them for doing what he called “the right thing” after their respective boards implemented mask requirements in defiance of their Republican governors amid growing COVID-19 infections. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

U.S. Education Secretary to Investigate Florida’s Ban on School Mask Mandates

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Friday, that his agency is ready to investigate Florida over the state's ban on school mask mandates.

Cardona's comments came the same day Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran gave Broward and Alachua county school district officials two days to drop their mask mandates or face financial sanctions equal to school board members' salaries.

“We want to make sure that we're using everything in our toolbox at the Department of Education to support students, to support families in their interest in sending their students to school in person,” said Cardona.

“Every student should have that opportunity. We know what works. And if we receive complaints that students’ rights are being violated by not having access to a safe learning environment, we're going to investigate those cases.”

Cardona spoke with the Broward Schools superintendent, Friday, repeating his pledge that the federal government is prepared to help if the district faces a financial penalty.

Trial Begins Monday on Challenge to Florida’s Ban on Mask Mandates in Schools

A state judge in Leon County, Monday, Aug. 23 will begin hearing evidence in a case brought by parents challenging the governor's ban on mask mandates in schools.

Last week, a state judge in Leon County rejected the DeSantis administration's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Parents argue the state's ban on mask mandates in schools is unconstitutional. Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper will begin hearing evidence Monday.

“Parents and children; they have a right to have their case heard in court. I'm not deciding if they win or they lose. I'm just deciding they have the right to have their case heard,” said Judge Cooper.

Also, Monday, students go back to school in Florida's largest district with a mask mandate. In recent days, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties have joined Broward and others in voting for stricter policies. Those districts are now allowing exemptions only for medical reasons.

Monroe County and other districts have scheduled meetings soon to reconsider their mask-optional policies, as the number of cases and quarantined students and employees rise.

Sarasota County School Board Votes to Require Masks

After nearly 50 parents, educators and health care professionals spoke during the public comment period, the Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to require students to wear masks in class for the next 90 days.

The decision, which came after a meeting of more than five hours, allows for an opt-out exemption for students with a doctor's note or special needs students on an Individualized Education Plan.

Sarasota joins Hillsborough, Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Alachua counties, which approved similar mask rules to protect against COVID-19. All are in defiance of a governor's executive order that requires parents to decide whether their children wear masks.

Bridget Ziegler, who voted against the mask requirement, said she agrees with COVID-19 mitigation measures, but not those that could go against the executive order.

"I don't believe we need to be spending that money in courtrooms, I think it deserves to be in classrooms,” Ziegler said.

The school board's mandate will be rescinded if the positivity rate drops below 8 percent for three consecutive days — and reinstated if it rises above 10 percent for three consecutive days.

Jane Goodwin, who voted for the mask requirement, said it's the board's responsibility to provide a safe environment for children to learn.

“We must mitigate masks, we must mitigate social distancing in our schools,” Goodwin said. “And every effort that we instilled last year must be doubled down on — particularly this year.”

Most of the public commenters wore white stickers on their shirts that said, “This is child abuse” with illustrations of masked children.

Several called the three mask options the board was debating “medical tyranny,” “muzzling of our kids,” and even “segregation.”

Most of the parents refused to choose an option, including one that would have made masks entirely optional but with opt-out paperwork.

All of the sticker-wearers who addressed the board said they’d be sending their children to school without masks regardless of what the board decided.

The board recessed multiple times to address hecklers and other outbursts.

Five parents wearing masks spoke in favor of mandatory masking, with Carol Learner pleading to the board to “stand on the right side of history.”

According to Dr. Michael Drenning, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota, the county's positivity rate for tests returned by the state Friday was at 23.06% and averaged 15.41% over the last 14 days.

Two lawsuits against the state, including one in federal court, are playing out as to whether Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order is unconstitutional. A three-day hearing in one of those cases is scheduled to start Monday.

COVID Hospitalizations Continue to Inundate SWFL Hospitals

The current surge in COVID-19 hospitalized patients continues to tax healthcare systems in Southwest Florida. Lee Health reported a slight reduction in admitted coronavirus patients Friday with 593 patients, which is down from an all-time high of 598 patients the previous day.

Since the start of the pandemic, Lee Health reported Friday that 819 COVID-19 patients have died in the system's five hospitals. As of Friday, Lee Health was at 95% of staffed operational bed capacity with 45% of ventilator capacity and 93% of ICU beds in use.

Lee Health also reported treating four pediatric coronavirus patients, Friday, which is down from the high of 16 pediatric patients reported earlier this month.

Lee Health officials also urge parents to have their children wear masks in schools and at all times while in public, noting that the Golisano Children's Hospital, last Thursday, experienced 200 visits to its emergency room. 123 of those patients were children with COVID-19 symptoms. Prior to the current pandemic surge, the Children's Hospital typically saw about 75 emergency room visits a day.

Meanwhile, the NCH Healthcare System in Collier County reported treating 218 COVID-19 patients on Friday, which is an increase of five cases from the previous day. Two of those patients were children, which is down from four pediatric patients the previous day.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System reported treating 124 COVID-19 patients, Friday, which is up from 120 the day prior.

Florida Hospital Association: Less Than Eight Percent of State's Critical Care Beds Remain Available

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are continuing to spike in Florida. That’s putting a strain on the state’s healthcare resources. WFSU reporter Regan McCarthy spoke with Florida Hospital Association President and CEO Mary Mayhewabout how hospitals are handling the pressure.

Q: As coronavirus cases are climbing in Florida, what are we seeing in hospitals?

A: “Over the last six weeks, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of COVID hospitalizations now exceeding over 17,000 individuals currently hospitalized for COVID. That compares to the previous highest peak throughout this pandemic of 10,200. And what we are seeing that is also dramatically different, is that it is younger individuals who are also being hospitalized—in their 20s, in their 30s, in their 40s. And they are for the large part individuals who are healthy where as previously we would have seen individuals with underlying health conditions that contributed to their hospitalization for COVID."

Q: You’ve said many hospitals in the state are facing a potential critical staff shortage that could be coming within a matter of days. Are we still expecting that and what happens when that does come?

A: “We’ve had a healthcare workforce shortage here in Florida and frankly around the country that existed prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated the shortage. This is truly a severe healthcare shortage and as our hospitals respond to the pandemic, over 75% of them have expressed that they are either currently or within the next seven days [will be] experiencing a critical staffing shortage. That means their ability to continue to admit patients will be significantly limited. That is a factor as we deal, not only with the significant COVID hospitalizations of over 17,000, but we are also seeing a much higher volume of critically ill non-COVID patients. It’s that combined pressure that’s putting such a strain on our capacity and the system. We have fewer than 14% of our beds available, less than 8% of our intensive care beds available. But hospitals are doing everything possible to respond, to hire staff, to redeploy staff to the bedside, to use cafeterias and auditoriums to convert those to patient care areas to respond to this demand."

Q: As we talk about hospitals filling up, are we facing a situation where a hospital would no longer be able to provide emergency care for people?

A: “Our hospitals are really sophisticated in their surge plans and their ability to adapt and to respond. Obviously one of the most significant challenges is the physical and mental exhaustion of our front-line staff, our healthcare heroes, but they are absolutely focused on ensuring that trauma, individuals that urgently need emergency care, that that will be available. But no doubt what everyone is seeing and experiencing are increased delays in the emergency departments because of the unprecedented volumes of patients that hospitals are working to care for and to do so efficiently and effectively. We do have hospitals that are no longer able to accept transfers of patients because of the bed availability. We are optimistic that there is a plateau of new cases on the horizon. When that happens, we will slowly start to see a decrease in the number of hospitalizations. But it is also why we continue to reinforce how critically important it is for people to get vaccinated. While that won’t protect immediately it will eventually and we know that over 90% of those who today are hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated."

Q: You’ve said during this conversation that vaccines are the best tool to get this virus back to a more manageable level. What role do booster shots play in that?

A: “The booster shots are likely, and have always likely been, inevitable to just ensure that we have continued protection from this virus. And certainly, as we learn more about the virus that we are able to guard against and protect against [the virus] through the use of these boosters. So, we’ve got a lot work to do to continue to support the infrastructure to deploy the vaccines, make sure that they’re easily accessible and now to support these booster shots."

Monoclonal Antibody Treatment Center Opens in Bonita Springs

Governor Ron DeSantis, on Friday, announced the opening of a new state-run monoclonal antibody infusion therapy clinic in Bonita Springs.

MAB treatments are not a replacement for vaccines, which remain the most effective protection against COVID-19. MAB treatments can provide temporary protection against COVID-19 for those in the very early stages of symptoms of an infection. The News-Press reports, monoclonal antibody treatments are particularly beneficial for people at high risk of complications from the virus due to a compromised immune system, advanced age, or chronic illness.

The new clinic in Lee County will run out of the old Bonita Springs Library, at 76876 Pine Ave., Bonita Springs. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week and will be able to provide some 300 treatments a day.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has been traveling the state touting the new state-run MAB treatment clinics.

The state run-clinics are offering treatments courtesy of the federal government, which has purchased the entire supply of treatments from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Lee Health offers MAB treatments at three clinics at Lee Memorial Hospital, Coconut Point and Cape Coral Hospital. Lee Health has been offering the treatments since December 2020 and reports positive results with patients.

A positive COVID-19 test and a physician referral are required and patients just be within their first seven days of experiencing symptoms to be eligible.

Orlando Officials: Conserve Water to Save Oxygen for Coronavirus Patients

Orlando leaders say the coronavirus surge is causing a shortage of liquid oxygen.

They are calling on residents to get vaccinated and conserve water, as liquid oxygen is used as a water purifier.

The Orlando Utilities Commission says it uses liquid oxygen as a disinfectant and also to remove hydrogen sulfide, which is not harmful but causes a rotten egg smell.

The utility says it is within about a week of running out of liquid oxygen and is asking customers to avoid activities like watering their yards and washing their cars for several weeks.

OUC says reclaimed water is not affected.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says the city will turn off its water features at its parks. He acknowledges the dramatic nature of the request but says the action is needed.

OUC is the state’s second-largest municipal utility, serving some 250,000 customers in Orange and Osceola counties.

Ending federal benefits was supposed to lower Florida’s unemployment but that didn’t happen, data shows

Governor Ron DeSantis ended Federal pandemic unemployment assistance early in June in order to get Florida back to work. But newly released data from the Department of Economic Opportunity shows unemployment has actually increased since the benefits ended.

Meanwhile, Floridians are still struggling to make ends meet throughout new COVID-19 spikes.

It’s been a rough 18 months for Dustin Adams.

The master electrician had risen to some of the highest levels in his trade. He’s the local president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada. And for nearly 30 years, he’s been the house electrician at Ruth Eckerd Hall, one of the Tampa Bay region’s premier performing arts venues.

“I have a great skill set,” Adams said. “I can walk into any theater in the world and make stuff work.”

Then COVID hit. And his industry, like much of the world, just kind of shut down.

“It changes when I’m gonna retire,” Adams said. “Because now my retirement is almost completely wiped out. I just turned 50. I had a little sun on the horizon in 15 years. But now that sun on the horizon is gonna be a lot further away.”

Leading from the bottom

At a max of $275-per-week, Florida already had some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country. Under Donald Trump, Americans temporarily got a $600-a-week federal boost. President Joe Biden reduced that to $300 in his stimulus package. It was supposed to be a lifeline to the millions of Americans whose lives and careers were put on hold.

But as the economy opened back up, many employers, especially in the hospitality industry, said they couldn’t hire anyone because the workforce was stuck at home living off of stimulus checks and beefed-up unemployment.

According to DEO chief economist Adrienne Johnston, the hiring shortage was felt everywhere.

“Every job, category, class, sector is experiencing some level of tension in the labor market,” Johnston said.

So in late June, DeSantis followed other mostly GOP-led states and ended federal enhancements early. It was meant to incentivize Floridians to work. But Florida’s unemployment numbers for July show ending assistance didn’t do that.

June’s rate, with the federal enhancement, was 5 percent. July’s rate grew to 5.1 percent.

“We experienced a significant event last year where there was a major disruption to the labor market,” Johnston said. “And while the recovery has been relatively quick compared to that event and compared to previous recessions, it does take time for employers and employees to connect back in the labor market.”

Digging into the data

According to analysis by Indeed’s lead economist Jed Kolko, employment grew slightly more – about .1 percentage point – and unemployment fell, in states that kept federal benefits. The same holds when the data is whittled down to industries like leisure and hospitality, which account for a large portion of Florida’s workforce.

Job growth there was also better in benefit-keeping states.

Rich Templin is the director of politics and public policy for the Florida AFL-CIO.

“This is a multi-faceted nuisance problem,” he said. “There are so many reasons that these workers aren’t going back to these low-paying service sector jobs.”

Templin said many found work outside of hospitality, like delivering for Amazon or meal services and creating content online.

“The economy changed during the pandemic,” Templin said.

It’s not over

Templin and Adams agreed, another reason for the shortage is that the pandemic isn’t over. The delta variant of COVID-19 has led to spikes in hospitalizations and daily cases that are eclipsing last year’s records. And with the Governor’s reluctance to mandate masks or other mitigation efforts, Adams fears it could get worse. Especially in the live entertainment industry.

“They have to come back regularly,” he said. “The artists have to feel safe, the buildings have to feel safe, the audience has to feel safe.”

The delta spike has led to the cancellation of numerous concert tours across all genres. Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, Stevie Nicks, Garth Brooks, BTS and many more have begun to cancel whole tours or stops in states that don’t enforce mitigation.

And for high-skilled employment – like being the head electrician at a major performing arts center – it’s not as simple as walking into a restaurant and throwing on an apron. Adams said many of the members and non-members he spoke to over the past 18 months can hardly even get those jobs.

With the federal enhancement set to expire next month, Adams said lives are still on the line.

“We need to stop making politics of unemployment, “he said. “This is not a bunch of people sitting at home doing nothing. It’s a bunch of people who are worried about losing everything.”

Prominent Naples Doctor and LGBTQ Advocates Dies from COVID-19

Prominent Naples physician and LGBTQ advocate Dr. Clinton Potter died last week from complications due to COVID-19.

Dr. Potter had been battling throat cancer for the past two years and had returned to his practice less than two months before contracting the coronavirus. He was fully vaccinated, but had a weakened immune system due to the cancer treatments. He was 61 years old.

The Naples Daily News reports, Dr. Potter was the only openly-gay physician in the Naples area when he opened his practice, Advanced Individualized Medicine of Naples, in 2016. The practice focused on a combination of concierge medicine and alternative medicine. He was also passionate about meeting the medical needs of the LGBTQ community and helped plan Naples' first Pride festival in 2017.

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