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COVID-19 Morning Report

Nurse Helene Leger gives FIorida International University student Vanessa Claude, her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 shot at a vaccination site on campus, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Marta Lavandier/AP
Nurse Helene Leger gives FIorida International University student Vanessa Claude, her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 shot at a vaccination site on campus, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Closing Arguments Set in School Mask Lawsuit with a Ruling Expected Friday

A ruling is expected Friday in a lawsuit over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban school districts from requiring students wear face masks. Closing arguments are slated for Thursday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state have sparred all week in a Leon County courtroom. The plaintiffs—a group of parents—have argued that by allowing face masking to be voluntary, the health of their children is at risk. Many of those children are too young to be vaccinated.

Palm Beach county parent Lesley Abravanel said she was shocked when she saw the classroom her kids would be in during a recent open house at the school. Desks were clustered together in groups of four and there was no way for kids to stay distanced.

“We’re throwing our children into pretty much a petri dish right now. If everyone isn’t required to wear a mask, how are we going to protect children and staff from catching this Delta variant? We are not. I’m terrified, and so is every other parent I’ve spoken with,” Abravanel said during her testimony earlier this week.

University of South Florida public health professor Thomas Unnash testified that the Delta 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.”

The state has presented its own witnesses, including two Leon County parents who’ve been challenging the district on its mandatory school mask policy.

Ashley Benton testified that her fifth-grade daughter, who has a sensory processing order that makes mask wearing difficult and painful—is suffering from the district’s policy. Benton, who has been present at several recent local school board meetings, says she consulted with her daughter’s pediatrician—but that the doctor refused to sign off on the medical opt-out form the district is requiring.

“At this point, if I can’t get a medical opt out, I think I will have to pull her out of school,” Benton told the court. Leon school officials have offered to work with Benton on her situation.

The state’s legal defense also included the state’s K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva who noted some students with disabilities, and those learning English, often struggle when the faces of their teachers are obscured. And a frequent advisor to Gov. DeSantis, Stanford University professor of medicine, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, noted other countries and public health entities have issued conflicting guidance on the effectiveness of requiring school children to wear face coverings.

“The World Health Organization does not recommend recommending kids 2-5…Public Health England, and the U.K. as a whole, has decided not to have masking at all in schools. So these bodies are looking at the same evidence base and coming to these conclusions in part because it’s a policy decision that weighs costs and benefits,” Bhattacharya said.

He also noted that while the Delta variant is more contagious, he doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to prove that it is more lethal to children.

The lawsuit was brought by parents seeking to overturn the Governor’s executive order. DeSantis believes mask wearing by children in schools should be left to parents to decide—and he says mandatory mask policies amount to government making healthcare decisions—which violates the new Parents Bill of Rights, law.

At least ten school districts in Florida including the Sarasota County School District, and most recently the Orange County School District, are defying the Governor's order and requiring students to wear masks in schools. Districts defying the executive order account for a little more than half of the state's 2.8 million public school students.

Lee Health Reports New Record High COVID Hospitalization Rate

Lee Health reported another all-time record-high number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, with 646 cases, including 15 children, which is three more pediatric patients hospitalized with the virus than the previous day.

Lee Health reported having 116 COVID patients in intensive care and 88 on ventilators. Currently, 54% of the health system's ventilator capacity and 95% of ICU rooms are in use. Lee Health reported 12 more deaths, Aug. 25, for a total of 859 COVID patients who've died in one of the health system's hospitals since the start of the pandemic.

Lee Health's staffed operational bed capacity improved slightly, yesterday, but is still very high at 97%.

The Naples Daily News reports, NCH Healthcare system in Collier County reported, Wednesday, that it's COVID patient population has grown to 230 people, including four pediatric patients, which is two fewer than the previous day. At least one of those pediatric patients is an infant less than a year old.

86% of NCH's hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated. 70 are in intensive care and 42 are on ventilators.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System reported Wednesday, having 131 hospitalized COVID patients.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported having 273 COVID patients, Wednesday, which is down from 278 on Tuesday. Sarasota Memorial reported four more COVID deaths Aug. 25, for a total of 65 fatalities since Aug. 6.

66% of the hospital's ICU patients are fighting COVID-19 infections. 90% of Sarasota Memorial's COVID patients are unvaccinated.

COVID Deaths and Hospitalizations Include Sarasota Teacher and Lee Sheriff’s Deputy

Family and friends are mourning the death from COVID-19 of Sarasota teacher Michelle Cook.

The Herald Tribune reports, the educator's symptoms began Aug. 10, before the new school year started, and she died Tuesday, at Sarasota Memorial Hospital after more than a week in the ICU and six days on a ventilator. She was 51.

This school year would have been her first at the charter school Suncoast School for Innovative Studies.

Even while she battled the coronavirus in the ICU, Cook took to social media to encourage others to take the virus seriously.

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign has been launched for a Lee County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. battling COVID-19.

The News-Press reports, 23-year law enforcement veteran and Lee Sheriff's Department Deputy Sgt. Steve Drum was admitted to Cape Coral Hospital with a COVID infection on Aug. 1. He's currently on a ventilator and has undergone a tracheotomy and has had a feeding tube inserted.

He had not yet been vaccinated when he was infected.

Also, a memorial takes place this evening for prominent Naples physician and LGBTQ advocate Dr. Clinton Potter, who 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 cancer treatments. He was 61.

Today's memorial takes place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at his medical practice, Advanced Individualized Medicine of Naples at 720 Goodlette Rd N Suite 204. Masks will be required for all attendees.

Judge Weighs Decision to Halt Federal Unemployment Money

A Leon County circuit judge, Wednesday, waded into a lawsuit about whether Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration violated state law when it cut off federal unemployment money in June for tens of thousands of jobless Floridians.

Judge Layne Smith heard testimony from plaintiffs who said the decision to stop the $300-a-week in federal benefits has caused them to struggle to pay for housing and other expenses.

As part of COVID-19 assistance, the federal government made the money available on top of the state’s maximum $275-a-week unemployment payments. The DeSantis administration stopped the additional federal benefits June 26, saying it was trying to spur people to return to the workforce.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Chief Financial Officer Will Currie testified that the state decided to stop the benefits this summer as it saw available jobs going unfilled.

“The idea was to remove the additional weekly benefit which was believed to be incentivizing people not to return to work,” said Currie.

The lawsuit contends that the payments should have continued until Sept. 6, as authorized by Congress, and that jobless people should receive retroactive payments to June 26.

Plaintiffs, including Broward County resident Harriett Rubin, testified Wednesday of their economic hardships during the pandemic that were worsened by the state cutting off the federal payments.

“To worry about your housing or if your air conditioning is going to be on and work, and can I get some food in the house. This little bit of money helps.”

The judge said he likely will issue a ruling Friday, but added that he expects his decision to be appealed.

States Ask People to Stop Using A Livestock Drug to Treat COVID-19

Florida’s Poison Control Centers are seeing a spike in cases of people ingesting a deworming medication that’s typically used to treat livestock.

People are taking ivermectin to try to treat or prevent COVID-19.

Poison Control says it’s treated close to 30 Floridians for taking ivermectin this month. Some cases involved serious side effects, like seizures.

Similar spikes are being seen in other states. NPR News reports, at least 70% of recent calls to Mississippi’s poison control were related to the drug.

Ivermectin is sometimes prescribed to people for head lice or skin conditions, but it’s usually used to treat parasites in cows and horses in large doses that are potentially deadly for humans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed data to support using the drug in fighting COVID-19.

Tampa To Require COVID Vaccinations for City Employees

The city of Tampa is joining other municipalities in mandating vaccines for their employees.

A spokesperson for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said they are working out the finer points with the unions, but the city's approximately 4,700 employees are required to be vaccinated with both doses by Sept. 30.

At a press conference with union leaders and an emergency medicine physician on Wednesday, Castor said the decision was hers and was made to protect both Tampa employees and the wider public.

“If you have not been vaccinated, you have somewhere in the range of 100 percent chance of contracting the COVID virus," Castor said.

Castor spoke of her 30 years as a police officer, saying she understands the importance of freedom. But also mentioned the vaccines for polio and measles and the damage both of those diseases wrought here before the vaccines were made available.

When asked about whether employees who refuse to be vaccinated might be terminated, Castor said no.

"We're not going to talk about termination, that's not going to happen," Castor said. "Our city of Tampa team is a great team and we're going to work with individuals who feel this vaccine is not in their best interest.”

Castor said employees who don’t choose to accept the vaccine can get rapid tests weekly at the city’s sites in Al Lopez Park and Al Barnes Park and show a negative test, and must wear an N95 mask to work.

Still others who believe they have had COVID already can get tested for antibodies.

Castor estimates that about 40% of the city’s employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19. But the city will be working with the state health department to verify vaccine status for the employees, so they don’t have to “check cards.”

Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency medicine physician at Tampa General Hospital, said it was important for the public to note new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Really important data coming out this week from Los Angeles, from the CDC, showing at least a fivefold increase in protection against even getting the delta variant or any variant of COVID we know of so far, if you're vaccinated compared to not vaccinated,” Wilson said.

He told reporters, “The biggest risk factor for whether you get hospitalized for COVID or go home with COVID is vaccination status.”

Wilson weighed risks and benefits of the vaccine aloud: “I have yet to admit, intubate, or take care of a critically ill patient who is that way because they got vaccinated, because of a vaccine side-effect.”

Survey: 68 Florida Hospitals Have Less Than 48 Hours-Worth of Oxygen

The Florida Hospital Association is sounding the alarm, saying a survey shows 68 hospitals have less than a 48-hour supply of oxygen.

Hospitals are using three to four times as much oxygen as they were before the pandemic because more than 17,000 patients are hospitalized statewide with COVID-19. The FHA survey, which was done today, shows 68 hospitals have less than 48 hours-worth of supply, with about half of these have less than 36 hours.

“This is not like running out of masks, right? This is lifesaving,” said Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew. “And right now we’re focused on how to make sure that does not happen. And so hospitals have been raising these concerns, with the state, with the division of emergency management, with the governor’s office, and have raised these concerns federally.”

Mayhew says part of the problem is a lack of delivery drivers. But she is also worried that there is an oxygen supply problem.

Since July 1, 29 hospitals have seen their oxygen supply dip below 12 hours.

“They’re making frantic calls, trying to find where their driver is because they were supposed to get a delivery and now it’s 10 hours, 12 hours overdue,” Mayhew said.

Calls and emails to the governor’s office, the Agency for Health Care Administration and Florida Division of Emergency Management were not immediately returned.

Hospitals reached in Central Florida say they have enough oxygen to meet demand.

Liquid Oxygen Shortage Means Hillsborough Water is Being Treated with Bleach

Hillsborough County residents may notice slight changes in the way their water tastes and smells.

Tampa Bay Water officials announced Wednesday that due to a shortage in liquid oxygen that is normally used to treat water they are temporarily using bleach instead at its Lithia Hydrogen Sulfide Removal Facility.

Deliveries of liquid oxygen are being diverted to local hospitals which need it for their COVID-19 patients. Hillsborough authorities are also asking customers to eliminate non-essential water use for the time being.

The city of Orlando has seen similar shortages of liquid oxygen since last week.

More Floridians Are Getting COVID Vaccines Amid Surge in Cases

In the past four weeks, the average number of weekly vaccine doses administered in Florida rose by 57% from the previous month. Experts say that's great, but it won't stop the surge overnight.

On a recent evening outside Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, health workers with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County administered COVID vaccines during a community outreach event. A DJ bumped dance music as neighbors and church patrons socialized and munched on southern comfort food from a local food truck.

Rev. Clarence Williams took the mic to urge people to get their shots.

“Come and be a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem,” he said.

Christian Davis, 18, took him up on the offer. He sat in a folding chair with a small band-aid on his upper arm after a nurse gave him his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Being young and healthy, Davis said he didn't think he needed the protection when COVID cases were going down.

“But now that they're going back up, I'm like alright, let me just keep myself safe and my family safe and friends around me safe and just get the vaccine,” he said.

Like Davis, more Floridians are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 after lagging rates earlier this summer contributed to the record surge in cases the state is experiencing now. But health experts say there's still a long way to go and it will be weeks before those who get their first shots now will reach peak immunity.

Florida's recent surge in cases also drove Courtney Poole, 39, to get vaccinated, and to have her teenage daughter do so too.

Poole said the new-ness of the vaccine made her hesitate, she wasn’t sure if it was safe.

"Because I didn't know enough about it and I was kind of nervous,” she said.

Then her kids had COVID scares at summer camp, and a family member recently tested positive for the virus. Most of Poole's other relatives have been vaccinated for a while and started laying on the pressure.

“When we get together they’re like, ‘Did you get the vaccine?’ and I'm like, ‘No, not yet...’ My mom was reluctant to even hug me, like when I sneeze she's like, ‘No, uh uh, put on a mask,’” Poole said with a laugh.

Only one of Poole’s kids is eligible to get vaccinated, the rest are too young. One reason she decided to ultimately get the shot was to protect them.

Millions still not vaccinated

Florida's vaccination rates had slowed in June but things are picking up again as the highly contagious delta variant runs rampant across the state.

In the past four weeks, the average number of weekly vaccine doses administered in Florida rose by 57% from what it was during the previous four weeks, according to state numbers.

Epidemiologist Jason Salemi with the University of South Florida, who tracks the numbers on his own dashboard, said it’s a significant bump, but not enough.

“We have nearly 8 million people of vaccine eligible age in our state that are not yet fully vaccinated,” he said, adding that the figure includes hundreds of thousands of seniors.

Salemi said even if most of those people got shots tomorrow it would be weeks before they're fully protected.

He said the rise in vaccinations highlights the importance of educating people about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, and the importance of removing access barriers.

But with hospitals overwhelmed and infection rates likely far higher than what's reflected in testing, Salemi said those efforts alone won't get the state far.

“So encouraging vaccination, again, that's hugely important for our long-term strategy, but we've got to couple the encouragement of getting vaccinated with wearing a mask and social distancing, especially when we're in a public indoor setting, because that's the best way we can block transmission right now,” he said.

That's a tall order in Florida, where a large part of the community has long resisted masks and state leaders have vocally opposed requiring them, even making it illegal in many places.

Salemi acknowledges everyone is sick of living with COVID but it's the reality right now.

He said with vaccination rates rising and more people developing some form of infection-acquired immunity, Florida's numbers are bound to come down soon. But the more people act now, he said, the fewer will needlessly suffer and die.

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