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COVID-19 Morning Report

Gov. Ron DeSantis in Cape Coral, July 30, announcing his executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates on students. A Leon County judge, Friday, issued a ruling, Friday, in favor of parents who filed a lawsuit challenging the executive order.
John Davis, WGCU
Gov. Ron DeSantis in Cape Coral, July 30, announcing his executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates on students. A Leon County judge, Friday, issued a ruling, Friday, in favor of parents who filed a lawsuit challenging the executive order.

State Loses Challenge to Mask Mandate Ban

A Leon County judge says the state cannot selectively enforce part of a law—and that the Parents Bill of Rights—which the administration has used to justify its mask ban—does NOT allow the state to issue blanket prohibitions. The ruling is likely to be appealed, but for now, school districts can keep their mask policies.

A group of parents sued the state over its mask ban and in his ruling, Judge John Cooper said the ban infringes on local school boards’ authority to set their own policies.

“The actions of the defendants do not pass constitutional muster because they seek to deprive the school boards in advance and without the school boards’ right to show the reasonableness of the policy. The law does not require that the school board get permission for the policy in advance, it requires only that if a policy is challenged, it has a burden to prove its validity under the guidelines of the statute,” Cooper said.

Palm Beach County parent Lesley Abravanel is among those who brought the lawsuit. She testified that 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 for the plaintiffs. When asked about how the Delta variant differs from the original strain of the virus, Unnash noted Delta is so contagious that if it were compound interest, investors would see a strong return.

"With the Delta virus, one person infected six, those six went on to infect 36. So, it’s the miracle of compound interest…but in this case, its 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 disorder 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.

Cooper, in explaining his ruling, said pediatricians need to sign opt-outs for the students who need them.

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 schoolchildren 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.

Cooper noted that opinion appears to be a minority one and that Florida law has long recognized the CDC as the “gold standard” for infectious diseases. He cited several places in state law that follow CDC guidance.

The ruling comes as at least 10 Florida school districts are openly defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mandatory school mask policies. Those 10 districts represent more than half of the students enrolled in Florida Public Schools. DeSantis has stated he believes parents have the right to decide for themselves whether they want their children to wear face coverings, and has cited the Parents Bill of Rights as the cornerstone of his argument. But Judge John Cooper, in his ruling, noted “A school district adopting a policy, such as a mask mandate, is acting within its discretion. It has been given this discretion by the Florida legislature,” and Cooper says the Parents Bill of Rights does not prevent districts from making mandates, as long as those mandates are justifiable and narrowly tailored.

The governor's communications team has issued a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling.

"This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts – frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented."

AdventHealth Increases Morgue Capacity Amid Surge in COVID Deaths

Capacity in the morgues of one of Florida's largest hospital networks is feeling the strain amid the current surge on COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The AP reports, although virus-related hospitalizations in the state have recently begun to level off, the number of daily reported deaths continues to climb.

Officials with AdventHealth in Central Florida say they've put more resources in place to store more bodies. Federal government data reports about 279 COVID deaths a day in Florida over the past week. A month ago, the average death rate stood at 52 fatalities a day.

Earlier this month, AdventHealth, Volusia County and Sarasota Memorial Hospital all reported leasing refrigerated trucks to expand morgue capacity amid the spike in deaths and backup at funeral homes.

Aerospace Industry Feeling Effects ff Florida’s Oxygen Shortage Caused by Rising COVID Cases

As Florida deals with another surge of COVID patients, supplies of oxygen for healthcare providers are running low and the shortage is affecting other industries outside of healthcare like aerospace.

To understand why the aerospace industry relies on oxygen, we’ll need to understand some basic rocket science.

A rocket leaves the ground by burning propellant which creates thrust, a reaction called combustion which requires oxygen. Since there’s no oxygen in space, many rockets use liquid oxygen, or LOX, to help burn that propellant. Engineers cool the liquid oxygen to very low temperatures and load it up in the rocket’s fuel tanks.

The supply of liquid oxygen is dwindling and being diverted to hospitals as more and more COVID patients require oxygen during recovery. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket uses rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen to create thrust. The diminishing supply of liquid oxygen could be a problem for future SpaceX launches.

“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” said SpaceX’s CEO Gwynne Shotwell. “We certainly are going to make sure hospitals have the liquid oxygen that we need. But for anybody that has liquid oxygen to spare, would you send me an email?”

Another rocket company United Launch Alliance said it’s working to source liquid oxygen for a launch next month from Vandenberg Air Force Station in California. The contractor that delivers liquid oxygen to that facility is diverting its shipments to Florida.

Even NASA is keeping a watchful eye on the supply issue. The agency’s next moon rocket SLS needs about 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen for each launch attempt.

There’s about 800,000 gallons already at the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, stored in a massive storage tank at Launch Complex 39B. NASA will need that supply for a wet dress rehearsal of the Artemis I mission — a practice run of the mission to send an uncrewed capsule to the moon and back. It will also need hundreds of thousands of gallons for the launch itself.

“Right now, we don’t have an issue,” said NASA propellent management’s Eric Dirschka. “But we’re of course sensitive to what’s going on in the marketplace and with the COVID in the hospitals. So it could become a problem.”

The oxygen shortage is affecting other industries, too. In Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer is urging residents to conserve water. The city’s utility company uses liquid oxygen to filter its water supply.

As COVID cases continue to increase in Florida, there’s worry the supply of liquid oxygen outside of the healthcare field could run dry.

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