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COVID-19 Morning Report

Virus Outbreak Florida
Marta Lavandier/AP
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AP
Wenderson Cerisene, 7, right, and his sister Dorah, 9, wait to get tested for COVID-19, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida schools are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases forcing of students and teachers to quarantine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Public Records Lawsuit Targets State Over COVID-19 Data

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the non-profit Florida Center for Government Accountability have filed a lawsuit alleging the Florida Department of Health has violated public records laws by refusing to provide detailed data about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court, after the health department rebuffed requests for information. Until early June, the state posted daily reports that provided extensive data about issues such as cases and deaths, with information also broken down by county.

Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration halted the daily reports in June and shifted to posting weekly information that is far less detailed.

Rep. Smith said the health department has violated public records laws at a time when the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to surge in Florida.

“We need to force the state to resume the reporting of the daily COVID reporting dashboard, so that folks can have access to that real time, critical public health data, to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their families,” said Smith.

He submitted a written request in July to the Orange County Health Department for daily information about COVID-19 cases, positivity and vaccination rates, hospitalizations and deaths.

However, the Department of Health says the requested information was considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure under state law.

The lawsuit disputes that the records are exempt from public release, as they do not include information identifying individual patients.

Pediatric COVID Hospitalizations in Florida Are Up

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide has risen dramatically in recent weeks.

The AP reports, pediatric COVID hospitalizations and deaths are still just a small fraction of the state's overall case and death rates, but they are exponentially higher than they were in previous waves of the pandemic.

According to federal data, about 60 pediatric patients are being admitted to hospitals in Florida per day for COVID-19. In late June and throughout much of the pandemic, that rate stood at about five hospitalizations a day.

Statewide, about 230 kids are hospitalized for COVID-19, compared to about 20 pediatric patients in June.

Florida Plans to Impose Fines for Requiring Proof of Vaccination

Florida plans to begin issuing $5,000 fines to businesses, schools and government agencies that require proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law earlier this year that bans vaccine passports. The AP reports, the fines are set to take effect Sept. 16.

Sarasota Schools Faces Threat of Losing Funds Over Mask Mandate

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has sent a letter to the Sarasota County School board, threatening to withhold funding totaling the amount of school board members' salaries over the district's mandatory mask mandate for students and staff that went into effect Monday.

The Herald-Tribune reports, school board members earn $43,043 a year, although Corcoran's letter didn't specify an exact figure on how much state funding the district stands to lose.

At least ten other school districts in the state have received similar threats from Corcoran over their mask policies.

Corcoran's letter is dated Aug. 27, the same day a Leon county circuit court judge issued a ruling striking down Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on school districts imposing mask mandates on students.

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, and School board chairwoman Shirley Brown said she thinks the rate of new cases in schools will begin to fall with the new mask policy in place. She also said the threat of losing her salary doesn't bother her saying, "I'm not doing this for the money.”

The Biden administration has previously indicated that federal money would be used to make up any state education dollars withhold from local school districts due to mask mandates.

FL Attorney General Weighs in On School Mask Fight

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody says school districts that only have medical opt-outs for mask wearing, are violating state law. The opinion, released by the Florida Department of Education, is the latest in an ongoing fight over whether schools can require students to wear face coverings.

The Suwanee County School District requested advice from Moody on the issue. In response, she wrote that districts are required to follow the rules unless the court invalidates them.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper issued an injunction stopping the Department of Education and State Board of Education from enforcing DeSantis’ executive order banning mandatory mask policies. But the injunction does not cover a Department of Health rule that also discourages mandatory masking in schools. The DOH rule says parents should have the ability to opt out.

Meanwhile, DOE has issued more letters to defiant districts notifying them that they are out of compliance with state rules banning their mask policies.

There are still several more mask lawsuits making their way through Florida Court, and the DeSantis administration says it will appeal Judge Cooper’s ruling. The lawsuit was brought by parents who argued that non-masked students risk the health and safety of their kids. The DeSantis administration says it believes masking should be voluntary and left to parents to decide.

DeSantis Says State May Resume Releasing County-Level COVID Death Data

Governor Ron DeSantis indicated, Wednesday, that the state may resume releasing county-level data on COVID-19 deaths.

The News-Press reports, DeSantis made the comment during a media conference at the Florida Department of Health in Lee County touting monoclonal antibody treatments aimed at lessening symptoms for people with COVID infections.

Health experts acknowledge the monoclonal antibody treatments can help some people, but emphasize that more attention should be placed on the best form of COVID prevention, which is vaccination.

During Wednesday's stop in Fort Myers, DeSantis also reiterated that he plans to appeal last Friday's circuit court judge ruling that struck down his executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates on students.

To date, he says his lawyers have not received an official copy of the order issued by Leon County circuit judge John C. Cooper.

Judge Rules Ending Federal Unemployment Benefits Early was Lawful

Governor Ron DeSantis did not violate the law by ending federal unemployment benefits early for out of work Floridians, according to a judge's ruling, Monday.

As part of COVID-19 assistance, the federal government provided $300 in weekly unemployment benefits on top of state benefits that cap at $275 a week.

The DeSantis administration stopped the additional federal benefits June 26, saying it was trying to spur people to return to the workforce.

A lawsuit from unemployed Floridians challenged the decision, arguing that the payments should have continued until Sept. 6, as authorized by Congress, and that jobless people should receive retroactive payments to June 26.

But the AP reports, Leon circuit court judge J. Layne Smith ruled that the state wasn't required to use the money. Smith also questioned how the benefits would be applied retroactively.

COVID Patients Continue to Strain Resources at SW Florida Hospitals

Lee Health reported treating 619 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, including 15 pediatric patients. This marks the second consecutive day that the total number of hospitalized COVID patients has declined slightly.

Earlier this week, Lee Health reported a single-day record-high COVID patient death rate of 18 fatalities, and eight more deaths, Sept. 1, for a total of 935 fatalities of COVID patients in its hospitals since the pandemic began.

Lee Health remains at 99% of staffed operational bed capacity, and with resources 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 5% of Lee Health's ICU bed capacity was available, Wednesday, with 110 COVID patients in the ICU and 87 on ventilators.

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

The News-Press reports, the NCH Healthcare system in Collier County reported 209 COVID-19 patients Wednesday, which is unchanged from the previous day.

NCH reported one COVID death, Sept. 1, for a total of 288 in-hospital deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

82% of the health systems COVID patients are unvaccinated. NCH is operating at 130% of ICU bed capacity, which is down from 151% of ICU bed space the previous day, with 56 COVID patients requiring intensive care, including 37 on ventilators.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Collier, reported treating 111 COVID patients Wednesday, down from 116 on Tuesday.

Meanwhile Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported 265 admitted COVID patients, Wednesday, which is down from 272 patients the previous day, and down from a record high of 277 patients on Monday.

69 COVID patients are in Sarasota Memorial’s ICU and the hospital's intensive care bed capacity is now up to 120 beds, which is the most since the pandemic began and nearly double the hospital's usual ICU bed capacity.

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 85 COVID-19 deaths just since Aug. 6, including three more fatalities reported Sept. 1. There have been 15 COVID deaths at Sarasota Memorial, in just the last five days.

Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton reported treating 98 COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, which is up from 90 the previous day.

Lakewood Ranch Medical Center had 65 hospitalized COVID patients, yesterday, which is down from 69 the previous day.

Manatee Memorial has reported 94 COVID-19 deaths and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center has reported 51 such deaths since June first.

Monoclonal Antibodies Help Treat COVID-19, But Experts Say Focus Should Be on Prevention

Monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 has become the focus of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pandemic response in recent weeks. Health experts say the therapy can help a lot of people, but that more attention should be placed on COVID prevention.

The state has opened 21 centers that offer the lab-made antibodies to patients at no cost. So far, more than 40,000 people have been treated at these facilities.

“Really focusing on providing early treatment for the most vulnerable to keep them out of the hospital and ultimately to save lives is what we’re going to do,” DeSantis said when first announcing the initiative in Jacksonville.

When a site recently opened at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, patients hoping to relieve their COVID-19 symptoms waited hours to receive the drug cocktail commonly known as Regeneron. Each person got four injections, two in the arms and two in the stomach.

Kevin Watler, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, said the antibody therapy helps people fend off severe infection and is an effective tool, one of several needed to combat the current surge. 

“Something that's gonna help, but it's not a perfect solution,” he said. “The number one thing people need to do is get vaccinated and, vaccinated or not, people really need to wear their mask because this virus is certainly spreading.”

"I had to do whatever I could to make myself better."

For the thousands of Floridians who are infected, the treatment is available to “high-risk” patients ages 12 and older who recently tested positive for the coronavirus or in some cases were just exposed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded its emergency use authorization for the therapy multiple times since first issuing it in November 2020 but has not yet given it full approval.

The FDA lists conditions like obesity, autoimmune disorders and lung disease as qualifiers but is ultimately letting providers make the call, according to Dr. Kami Kim, director of infectious diseases and international medicine with USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. She leads a monoclonal antibody infusion clinic at Tampa General Hospital.

“We’ve prioritized the ones who have the most medical problems because they have the highest risk, the most likely to get serious disease, die, etc. but we’re pretty liberal because we want everyone to recover with as few complications as possible," Kim said.

The state-run sites are meant to relieve the burden on hospitals overrun with patients too sick to benefit from the antibodies, not only by reducing new admissions but also by helping administer the therapy. Up until recently hospitals were some of the only places offering it, typically through IV infusions.

Palm Harbor resident Lisa Sibley, 57, recently received the therapy in this manner at Mease Countryside Hospital, a BayCare facility near Clearwater. The emergency room was packed with COVID patients, so Sibley said the antibody infusions were administered in a tent outside.

“I’m sitting in my chair looking down at the sidewalk, there were IV poles and blood pressure machines and computers and lots of fabulous nurses,” she said.

Sibley has asthma and got COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. She admitted that the newness of the vaccine and the therapy “terrified” her, but in each she told herself to trust the science.

“I had to take my own advice, step up to the plate and do whatever I could do to make myself better, for my family and for myself,” Sibley said.

And she's glad she did. Sibley said her symptoms quickly improved. She credits the combined assistance of the vaccine and the antibody therapy for protecting her against severe illness.

"We shouldn't be in this position."

Still, Sibley is frustrated with Florida's surge.

“We shouldn’t be in this position,” Sibley said. “We should have had masks in place, more people should have had the vaccine. We shouldn't have a governor that is going to withhold funds from people in education because they want to do what they think is best for children.”

The DeSantis administration followed through on threats to punish school districts for requiring masks this week despite a judge’s ruling that education officials could not enforce the governor’s mask mandate ban. The judge found the ban to be unconstitutional but the state said it’s appealing the decision.

The ruling came weeks after another judge blocked the state from enforcing a ban on vaccine passports against cruise lines.

DeSantis has been criticized for downplaying the vaccines while promoting the antibody treatment but he denies this.

"We've got to be honest with people, there are people who are vaccinated who are testing positive, it’s almost always very mild and it was the right thing to do and it’s protecting them against severe outcomes,” he said at a recent press conference in South Florida.

The Associated Press revealed one of the governor’s top donors invested in Regeneron, though the shares are only a tiny fraction of the funder's portfolio.

DeSantis called it a “political attack,” and accused the news outlet of “discouraging readers from seeking life-saving treatment.”

The federal government is covering all costs of the drugs for now. But Dr. Kim said they are a lot more expensive than the vaccines.

They’re also more complicated to administer because they require a longer monitoring period and more stringent infection control measures as almost all patients are COVID-positive.

Kim said she is all for expanding access to the antibody treatment, but reiterates COVID prevention is key.

“I still think the best thing would be for people to not get COVID in the first place,” she said. “Yes, we have something to treat them if they do, but that’s not really what you want.”

Take it from Lisa Sibley, who said getting COVID-19 completely disrupted her life, not just because of the physical illness but because she felt guilty about exposing other people and couldn’t work or see loved ones for weeks.

Sibley said she's glad more people can get this therapy, but hopes more don't have to.

"I'm very, very grateful the treatment is here, and it is a good thing that our governor is promoting it, but along with that he does need to promote vaccines and masks, social distancing, etc. until we're done with this," she said.

Looking to get monoclonal antibody treatment?

For state-run antibody sites that offer Regeneron injections, check out this list.

This website allows you to locate infusion centers offering the antibody therapy, including area hospitals, urgent care centers and health clinics.

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