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COVID-19 Morning Report

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First Day of School Mask Trial Focuses on Delta Variant Transmission

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to stop school districts from mandating students wear masks is in court this week. A Leon County judge is hearing a lawsuit brought by a dozen parents who want to overturn the governor’s mandate ban. Day One of testimony focused heavily on the transmissibility of the Delta variant.

The variant is so contagious that if it were compound interest, investors would see a great return, "but in this case, it’s exponential growth of a pretty terrifying infection," University of South Florida epidemiologist Thomas Unnash testified Monday in the first day of the trial.

DeSantis’ administration has sought to stop school districts from mandating students wear face coverings amid growing concern about kids—once thought largely immune to the virus—becoming sicker. DeSantis has argued face mask use should be voluntary, and has repeatedly pointed to a study from Brown University that questions the efficacy of face coverings in schools. But that study, says Unnash, is problematic.

“They were trying to disentangle, rather unsuccessfully, a whole variety of different factors that could lead to the result they got…but they did not take into account levels of community transmission," Unnash said.

Unnash said the Brown University researchers also couldn’t control for classroom density or ventilation, among other issues. A peer review is in progress but hasn’t been completed, which is a must for validation and verification of findings.

Parents in the lawsuit argue voluntary mask use is an unacceptable risk to the health of their children. And they want districts to be able to mandate face coverings. Several have, despite the administration’s threats of taking away funding and removing officials from office.

“When it comes to masking it schools, this is hardly a settled issue. There is an ongoing debate over whether masks are more harmful than beneficial to children, or in school environments in general. The governor’s executive order recognized this explicitly," said Michael Able, an attorney for the state.

Judge John Cooper told the sides that if they want to reach some kind of an agreement before he rules, they can.

Florida Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates' Focus on Pandemic Not Hurting, Recent Polling Suggests

A leading pediatrician in Florida claims she’s received threatening messages for publicly advocating for school mask requirements.

“First time in my life that I’ve gotten hate mail — which is very disheartening,” said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, the president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Gwynn spoke during a virtual campaign press conference with Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) on Monday. Before the event officially got underway, she commented to a parent on the Zoom conference call. “I just can’t believe how polarized our country is.”

Her comments come amid a statewide political fight over mask requirements in schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is threatening to withhold funding from local districts that require students to wear masks without allowing parents to opt out their children. Still several districts are keeping their mask mandates in place, and dozens of parents are suing the governor over his efforts to stop local districts from setting their own policy.

Though many parents have called for mask-optional policies for students, a majority of respondents in one recent survey expressed support for school-wide mask requirements.

Florida Democrats seeking to unseat Governor Ron DeSantis have focused heavily on the pandemic since the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases. A recent survey of voters indicates this strategy isn't hurting at a time when DeSantis is also at odds with many parents, doctors and several local school districts over student mask policies.

In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend students wear masks in school.

Crist’s latest campaign event focused on his opposition to DeSantis’ executive order regarding masks.

“This is not about calling for lockdowns or closing down our economy,” Crist said. “It’s about taking small, common-sense steps to protect our children and our families and prevent another lockdown from ever happening again.”

Crist was a Republican when he served as governor between 2007-2011. He’s attacked DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic in an effort to get his old job back — this time as a Democrat.

“The governor doesn’t care about anyone but himself and what’s best for him,” Crist said. “We have seen school closures and thousands of students and teachers sent home under mandatory quarantines. The governor does not know what he’s doing and in fact is a direct threat to our health and safety.”

In a survey conducted by St. Pete Polls, nearly 4,000 Democratic, Republican and independent voters across the state were interviewed over the phone in early August. Results show a majority of respondents— 62 % — supported mask requirements for children in school.

Democratic state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s campaign to unseat the governor has also focused on pandemic-related issues. Fried’s held regular COVID-19 briefings over the last several weeks. She’s also railed against DeSantis’ efforts to bar schools from requiring masks.

Another recent poll shows Crist and Fried both leading DeSantis by several percentage points — with Crist ahead by a wider margin. The survey was taken between Aug. 14 - 18. It shows Crist leading DeSantis by 12 percentage points in a potential matchup. In another hypothetical contest, Fried led DeSantis by seven percentage points. The poll captures responses from 1,000 likely voters interviewed over landline. Its margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points.

In a statement emailed on Monday, Fried’s campaign highlighted another data point in the survey: DeSantis’ low pandemic approval ratings. About 54% of respondents reported viewing his “handling of the overall COVID-19 pandemic” unfavorably. “The most important number in this poll isn't that Nikki Fried is leading DeSantis — it's that DeSantis is underwater,” the statement reads.

But for parents and medical professionals, the policy debate over how to most effectively protect children from COVID-19 has nothing to do with scoring political points. Dr. Lisa Gwynn, a pediatrician in Florida, says it’s ultimately about ensuring everyone is safe. “And the only way to do that? The message is simple: Everyone needs to have a mask on in the classroom. And if they can get immunized, get immunized. And to keep their distance and wash their hands.”

Lee Health Reports Record High COVID Patient Rate/Sarasota Memorial Leases Mobile Morgue

As COVID-19 infections continue to inundate hospitals in Southwest Florida, Sarasota Memorial Hospital is now leasing a refrigerated trailer to serve as an expanded morgue. Sarasota Memorial spokeswoman Kim Savage tells the Herald Tribune, the trailer isn't currently in use, but was leased in preparation for an expected surge in COVID-19 deaths in the coming weeks.

Sarasota Memorial reported 15 more coronavirus deaths over the past weekend for a total of 56 deaths since Aug. 6.

Lee Health reported 22 deaths of admitted COVID-19 patients over the weekend, for a total of 841 in-hospital fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Lee Health officials reported having 629 hospitalized coronavirus patients as of Monday, marking a new all-time record high. Eight of those patients are children. Lee Health is at 94% of staffed operational bed capacity and quickly reaching the point where non-patient areas like cafeterias may be needed to care for patients.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported a slight drop in COVID-19 patients, Monday to 274, compared to Sunday's record high of 284 cases. 48 are in the ICU and 90% of admitted COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton reported 89 COVID-19 patients, Aug. 23, and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center had 61.

The NCH Healthcare system in Collier County reported treating 231 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, Monday, and has reached 114% capacity for critical care patients with 54 in the ICU, even though intensive care patient capacity is 47 beds.

The Naples Daily News reports, that's an improvement over Friday's critical care capacity of 140%.

NCH reports 86% of admitted COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

After FDA Gives Full Approval to Pfizer's COVID-19 Vaccine, Some Hope More People Will Get Their Shots

Dozens of doctors in Palm Beach County gathered at a parking lot this morning to announce their frustration with people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The physicians who work at medical centers and hospitals did not leave any patients unattended, and instead gathered outside of their shifts.

"We’ve had enough, and we’re pushed to the max," said Dr. Jennifer Buczyner, a neurologist who helped organize the event as a way to stand together and get their message out urging people to get inoculated.

Buczyner told WLRN that she hopes Monday's full approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will motivate people to get their shots and eliminate an excuse not to get vaccinated. She wants people to know that the vaccines do not cause infertility and do not have any microchips in them — some of the misinformation from social media that people commonly cite to her.

"Our hospitals are full, all of our supplies are running lower, and if we’re each seeing 20 to 25 patients a day in our office and having these conversations, it’s an exhausting conversation to do 25 times a day," Buczyner said.

Justin Senior, chief executive officer of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, also hopes the FDA approval helps reduce the unvaccinated patient volume across the state.

"I would hope that this also convinces the public of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and it induces more people to go out and get the shot," Senior told WLRN. "The vaccines work. You can see it in the hospitalization numbers. These vaccines prevent hospitalization and prevent the most severe outcomes. They definitely do."

Facilities that provide health care, like hospitals and nursing homes, don’t usually require staff to get vaccines that only have emergency use authorization. Now, after the FDA approval, Senior expects more vaccine mandates at workplaces like these.

Jackson Health System in Miami set today, Aug. 23, as the deadline for employees, students and vendors to get at least the first COVID-19 vaccine shot for the two-dose vaccines. They have until September 30th to finish the vaccination.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital Offers Vaccine Bonus Incentive

Sarasota Memorial Hospital is looking to boost the number of employees vaccinated against COVID-19 by offering $500 bonuses to staff who are fully inoculated by Oct. 1.

Employees already vaccinated are eligible for the bonuses. The Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota Memorial is the county's largest employer with 7,400 workers. 70% are vaccinated so far. If all of Sarasota Memorial's workforce gets the vaccine by the beginning of October, the bonus initiative would cost the health system $3.7 million.

Sarasota Memorial typically offers $500 year-end bonuses, and the vaccination bonuses would be in addition to that, but new employees won't be eligible for the year-end bonuses if they remain unvaccinated.

COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall to Be Held by Lee Health

Lee Health is hosting a live virtual town hall on Tuesday, August 24 at 2 p.m. EST in an effort to increase public awareness about COVID-19 and the highly contagious Delta variant.

During WGCU-FM’s Gulf Coast Life, Lee Health’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Scott Nygaard said there are currently 649 COVID-19 patients being treated throughout the health network’s five hospitals, and the age range is vast.

“So, we have a broad age distribution. It’s anywhere from six weeks to 94-years-old. Seven are under the age of 18 and we are beginning to see more impact on younger children and even infants.”

As of this morning, there have been 841 COVID-19 deaths inside of Lee Health since the beginning of the pandemic.

The public is invited to watch and interact during the virtual town hall on Lee Health’s Facebook page and have comments and questions answered by Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci, and Dr. Stephanie Stovall, Lee Health Pediatric Infectious Diseases Specialist and Interim Chief of Quality & Patient Safety.

Click here for Lee Health's Facebook Livestream.

If you need to schedule a vaccination appointment, Lee Health is currently offering the COVID-19 vaccine to anyone 12 years and older at its Community Vaccination Clinic at Gulf Coast Medical Center.

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