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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Lee Health
Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci addresses media conference about COVID-19, Aug. 30

Florida reported 151,760 new COVID-19 cases in the week ending Sunday, Aug. 29, marking a slight increase from 150,740 cases reported the previous week.

Florida ranked second among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. In the week that ended Sunday, Florida had 13.96% of the country's cases, while accounting for 6.45% of the country's population.

Lee County reported an average of 1,100 cases per day in the week that ended Sunday.

Collier County reported an average of 325 cases per day in the same week.

Lee Health at 100% Capacity as COVID-19 Hospitalizations Continue Surge in SW Florida

Lee Health reports treating 626 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Tuesday, including 14 pediatric patients.

During a press conference, Monday, Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci said the health system's five hospitals went into the past weekend with 690 admitted coronavirus patients, which dropped to 601 patients before accommodating 92 new COVID patients on Sunday alone.

Lee Health reported a single-day record-high COVID patient death rate of 18 fatalities, Monday for a total of 927 fatalities in its hospitals since the pandemic began.

Lee Health is now at 99% of staffed operational bed capacity, and with capacity so strained, some adult patients are doubling up and other areas like storage space are being converted for clinical use. The health system may have to convert other spaces like conference rooms and cafeterias into patient treatment areas if current trends continue.

A mobile morgue has been brought to Cape Coral Hospital to help manage the number of bodies.

Just 2% of Lee Health's ICU bed capacity was available, Monday, with 119 COVID patients in the ICU and 96 on ventilators.

Cape Coral Hospital Emergency Department Director Dr. Timothy Dougherty says 49% of patients coming to Lee Health ERs have COVID-19 symptoms that could have been avoided by people getting the vaccine.

Lee Health Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist and Interim Chief of Quality & Patient Safety Dr. Stephanie Stovall said the neonatal intensive care unit at Golisano Children's Hospital has never been as full as it is now. She urges pregnant women to get the vaccine, noting that the virus is hitting pregnant women harder, and causing them to deliver earlier.

The Naples Daily News reports, the NCH Healthcare system in Collier County reported 214 COVID-19 patients on Monday, including two pediatric patients. The NCH coronavirus patient population is down from 222 patients on Friday. 82% are unvaccinated. NCH is operating at 149% of ICU bed capacity with 61 COVID patients requiring intensive care, including 35 on ventilators.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Collier, reported treating 123 COVID patients on Monday, marking an increase from 119 patients since Friday.

Meanwhile Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported another record high, with 291 admitted COVID patients on Sunday, before dropping to 277 hospitalized coronavirus patients Monday. 82% are unvaccinated and 68 are in the ICU. Sarasota Memorial has had to convert other spaces in the hospital to accommodate the increase in patients requiring intensive care.

Sarasota Memorial is also leasing a refrigerated trailer to serve as additional morgue space to store dead bodies. The Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota Memorial has experienced 78 COVID-19 deaths just since Aug. 6.

Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton reported treating 90 COVID-19 patients, Monday, and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center had 63 hospitalized COVID patients. Both of those numbers mark increases since late last week.

Florida Ed Commissioner Withholding Funds to School Districts with Mask Mandates

Despite a recent circuit court judge's ruling striking down Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on school districts imposing mask mandates for students as unconstitutional, Florida education officials are still making good on threats to withhold funding from districts that are requiring mask wearing in schools.

The AP reports, on Monday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced that the state department of education has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board members' salaries from the Alachua and Broward County school districts.

President Joe Biden has said that if this happens, the federal government will provide money to cover the lost state funding.

DeSantis Vows to Appeal School Mask Mandate Ruling While Touting Antibody Treatments in Jacksonville

Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters in Jacksonville Monday that his office plans to appeal Friday’s court ruling that school districts can require masks.

DeSantis had previously threatened to take away district funding for passing a mask mandate. On Friday, a judge ruled the governor had overstepped his authority.

“I think we're gonna have really good grounds to appeal in terms of the first District Court of Appeal,” DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, what the parents Bill of Rights requires, in our judgment, is that parents be given the right to opt out, if they think that's in the best interest of their kids.”

In most counties that have passed mask mandates, including Duval, parents can still opt their children out of wearing a mask, but only if their doctors deem it medically necessary to grant an exemption.

Duval is one of at least ten Florida school districts with some form of mask mandate. Charter schools in Duval county are not required to follow the local school board’s mask mandate.

DeSantis, speaking at the Department of Health on University Boulevard, addressed the school mask mandate ruling while touting monoclonal antibody treatments. The treatments are available at free, state-run sites across Florida. A clinic offering the treatment opened at the Downtown Jacksonville Main Public Library two weeks ago.

An unvaccinated woman, Toma Dean, who was photographed earlier this month on the floor of Jacksonville’s downtown library Regeneron clinic joined the governor at the Duval County Health Department Monday. Dean said that she believes the treatment helped keep her alive after she caught COVID.

“I was headed for an ICU bed,” Dean said with belabored breath. “There was not a doubt in my mind. You can tell, you can tell by your body and you can tell by your breathing. So I received Regeneron and within about 24, 36 hours I knew I was gonna make it.”

Mother Toma Dean is pictured almost two weeks after she was photographed sick on the ground at the Regeneron clinic in Downtown Jacksonville.

Dean said she is planning to get vaccinated against COVID once she is eligible, which will be 90 days after receiving Regeneron.

The CDC said COVID vaccines are significantly more effective than monoclonal antibodies at reducing the severity of COVID-19. Monoclonal antibodies also do not prevent catching COVID. Regeneron is only available to those who have contracted or been exposed to COVID.

DeSantis’ visit to Jacksonville came as the vaccination rate is plateauing in Duval County. The lowest number of people got vaccinated last week since mid-July, according to the weekly data report from the Florida Department of Health.

Lee Schools Superintendent Imposes Student Mask Mandate/Sarasota Schools Begins Enforcing Mask Mandate

The Lee County School District is imposing a mandatory mask mandate for students and staff beginning Wednesday. Interim superintendent Ken Savage announced the new mandate Monday, noting it will be reassessed after 30 days.

The News-Press reports, the new rule replaces the district's current mask policy which allows parents to opt-out their children. The new mandate is being imposed without a vote by the school board, but board members have affirmed the policy.

The stricter mask policy comes after a circuit court judge, on Friday, struck down Governor Ron DeSantis' executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates.

Since Lee county school district students returned to the classroom Aug. 10, more than 3,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported. In the previous school year, the district didn't reach that number of infections until April.

The Brevard County School board approved a student mask mandate, during an emergency meeting Monday, as more school districts in the state consider similar moves following Friday's court ruling.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota County School District began enforcing a new mandatory mask policy for students on Monday. The 90-day mandate includes exemptions for medical reasons.

The Herald Tribune reports, despite an organized effort for kids of parents who oppose mask wearing to not comply with the mandate, the vast majority of students did comply with the new rule, Monday.

An organization called Moms for Liberty, co-founded by Sarasota School Board member Bridget Ziegler, laid out a game plan last weekend for how students would resist mask wearing. However, of the 2,300 students attending Sarasota High School, only 35 refused to wear masks, and only nine refused to comply after their parents were called.

In just the first month since classes began in Sarasota schools, the number of COVID-19 cases has nearly surpassed the total number of cases for the entire previous school year.

SWFL Law Enforcement Agencies Experience COVID Cases/Deaths

A Manatee County Sheriff's Department deputy has died of COVID-19. The Herald Tribune reports, 67-year-old Douglas Clark died from the virus after two weeks of hospitalization. He'd worked with the department’s corrections division.

The News-Press reports, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office confirmed a second COVID-19 death in the department with the passing of Deputy Sheriff First Class William Diaz who worked in the corrections division. Last week the Lee Sheriff’s office held a memorial service for Deputy Steven Mazzotta, who also died of COVID-19 and worked in corrections.

In the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, 81 employees were out on Monday, including 56 with positive COVID-19 tests. Currently, four Sarasota Sheriff's Department staff members are hospitalized with the virus.

Last week, The Sarasota Sheriff's Department reported having 94 staff out of work, including 60 with positive COVID-19 tests after four employees had returned to work with positive tests and having symptoms, even though they'd been repeatedly instructed not to come to work after a positive test.

Leon County Doctor Weighs in On Booster Shots

Health officials say booster shots are part of the equation for helping to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but some question whether they’re needed for everybody. Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Chief Integration Officer Dr. Dean Watson said people with weakened immune systems are already eligible for a third shot.
“I think that will be very effective in that population because they didn’t see an antibody level high enough or adequate enough when they got their first two shots, and that makes sense because they were immune compromised,” said Dr. Watson.

“I think for the general population that has been vaccinated, I think we will see a lot of people interested in elevating their antibodies even higher at eight months, 10 months after they’ve completed their series.”

Watson said right now, booster shots are simply a third shot of the same dose people already received in their initial vaccine series. He said it would do the job of once again ramping up antibody production to ensure a higher level of protection from severe illness. Watson said experts are still studying whether those shots are needed for the general population.

With COVID Numbers Rising, Key West Scales Back Its Biggest Party of The Year

Last year, the biggest event on the Keys calendar was canceled because of COVID-19. This year, Fantasy Fest is back on for late October. With cases spiking on the island, it will look different from previous years.

After tourists filled the Keys for the Fourth of July and lobster mini-season a few weeks later, the local administrator for the state Department of Health said cases spiked on the island chain. The only hospital in Key West, Lower Keys Medical Center, changed its status from green to yellow — meaning it had to bring in extra staff — for the first time during the pandemic.

All that worries Key West Mayor Teri Johnston — especially when Fantasy Fest traditionally brings big crowds downtown.

"No matter how you try to spread people out, the night of the parade there are 50,000 people clumped up on Duval Street," she said.

One commissioner suggested that Fantasy Fest participants be required to wear masks, Johnston said.

"Well, that's fine, except Fantasy Fest is a drinking event and to associate drinking events and having your mask on is ridiculous," she said.

Fantasy Fest organizers announced late Monday that the Saturday night parade and street fairs on Friday and Saturday are canceled. They also warned those planning to attend to have proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test in hand, as some venues may require them.

"I've heard from a number of event sponsors that say, oh no that slows us down too much at the door," Johnston said. "Well, you know, maybe that's the cost of hosting an event in the middle of a COVID spike."

The organizers also say people should bring masks and be prepared to wear them when they can't socially distance. They're holding off on a decision about the Masquerade March through Old Town on Friday evening. That event is a locals' favorite.

Some Fantasy Fest-related events were cancelled last week — the King and Queen contest usually raises money for a local nonprofit. And the popular Zombie Bike Ride, held on the first weekend, has also been canceled.

The CDC rates Monroe County's community transmission rate as high, with a 16.56% positivity rate for the week of Aug. 23-29.

Despite the pandemic, the Keys and especially Key West are setting all-time highs in tourism, even without cruise ships or international travelers. Hotels have been full and charging high rates. Johnston said tales taxes collected in the city in June were up almost 150% over the same month in 2019 — itself a record year for tourism.

"And I think that weighs heavily on the businesses that are saying, do I want to host this fantasy event for three days, or do I want to protect the economic viability of my business for the rest of the year?" Johnston said.

The Key West commission is meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss special events and COVID safety. After Fantasy Fest, the next scheduled big event in the Keys is powerboat races in November.

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