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COVID-19 Morning Report

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, file photo, students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)
Marta Lavandier/AP
FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, file photo, students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)

August 2021 COVID Death Rates Higher than Previous 2020 Pandemic Peak

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in the last eight days of August 2021, Florida had more daily COVID-19 deaths than at the previous COVID peak in August 2020. The AP reports, the data shows the seven-day average in daily deaths reached 244 fatalities last month, compared with the highest previous rate of 227 deaths in August of last year.

Lag times in the reporting of death data means the true toll of this current surge could take weeks to come to light. The numbers for mid to late August of this year could still rise as the state department of health reports more data to the federal government.

COVID-19 Leading Cause of Death Among Florida Law Enforcement Officers In 2021

COVID-19 is killing more Florida law enforcement officers than gunfire, vehicular assault, and automobile accidents combined. 14 of the state's officers have succumbed to the virus so far this year.

It's up to individual law enforcement agencies to figure out if those officers contracted the virus while on duty. If so, the agency can rule those as line of duty deaths, and the officers' families can get associated death benefits. That would also mean their names would be added to a memorial in the state Capitol's courtyard.

"Law enforcement officers understand their oath of service means sacrifice. Over the past 18 months, that's meant willingly exposing themselves to COVID-19 in the line of duty and potentially exposing their families when they return home," Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA) President Stephan Dembinsky said in an email statement.

The FPCA is calling on law enforcement personnel to wear mourning bands the entire month of September, and the group, along with the Florida Sheriffs Association, is designating September to "honor the service and sacrifice of Florida law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2021." That includes officers who've died from COVID-19.

DeSantis Appeals Student Mask Mandate Ruling

Governor Ron DeSantis has appealed the Aug. 27 court ruling that struck down his July executive order barring Florida school districts from imposing mask mandates on students. In a lawsuit filed by parents, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper ruled that DeSantis exceeded his authority with the order, opening the door for Florida's 67 school district boards to require students to wear masks in schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The AP reports, attorneys for the state are taking their case to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has sent letters to a number of school districts, including the Sarasota County school district, threatening to withhold education funding in the amount of school board members' salaries, because of local mask mandates.

Leon Schools Lawyers Up to Defend Its Mask Mandate

The Leon County School district is lawyering up to defend its school mask mandate. The district has hired the same firm that is also representing Miami Dade Schools in the ongoing fight over requiring students to wear face coverings.

The district received a letter last week from the Department of Education notifying its superintendent and school board that its mask mandate is under investigation. It had until Wednesday to respond. In a written response to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Superintendent Rocky Hanna defended the district’s mask policies, noting there is nothing in a Department of Health Rule governing mask mandates that prohibits school districts from requiring parents have a medical excuse for opting their children out of wearing face coverings in school.

“The DOH Rule does not dictate the procedures that school districts must follow for the opt-out or the criteria that are to be applied. Each individual school district has to determine the appropriate procedures and criteria for its district based upon local conditions, which is what we have done,” Hanna wrote to Corcoran.

The Department is already withholding some funds from Broward and Alachua which are only allowing students to opt out of wearing face coverings if they have a doctor’s note. Hanna said Thursday in a special meeting of the Leon School Board that the district has seen more than 600 students testing positive for COVID.

“All of last year we were at 815 cases. So we’re now at 75% after 15 days of the entire school year last year with the number of positive cases,” he said.

The district has hired the firm Weiss Serota which is also helping Miami-Dade Schools defend its mask policies. Attorney Jaime Cole says Leon has a stronger case than Broward and Alachua in that the district’s requirement that students wear face coverings is more narrowly tailored.

“You only did it through PreK-8, you didn’t do it for the high schools," Cole said, "so you’ve been narrowly tailored. So part of the strategy we had when we drafted the response to the letter is to explain that to the state board of education to try to deter them from continuing enforcement action."

Leon started the school year with a voluntary mask policy but after case numbers climbed and a student died, the district adopted a mandatory one that requires a medical excuse to opt-out.

At stake in the legal battle is whether school boards can live up to their constitutional mandate which gives them control over how to operate their schools.

“I’ve been fighting for home rule for cities and governments. And if the state or the governor and other state agencies are able to force you to do whatever they say and penalize you personally for doing it or kick you out of office for the way you vote—it goes to the heart of democracy and the separation of powers and those concepts,” Cole said.

More than a dozen Florida school districts are now openly defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban mandatory mask wearing in public schools. A Leon County Circuit Judge ruled last week against the state in a lawsuit brought by parents who claim barring districts from mask mandates puts their children in danger of contracting a serious illness. The ruling was officially filed Thursday, with an injunction that seeks to block the state from enforcing punishments against school districts. But that order is certain to be appealed, and Cole notes a stay on the injunction is likely to be granted—until the issue is fully resolved.

The DeSantis administration has said such policies violate the Parent Bill of Rights which says parents have the authority to make healthcare decisions for their children. Yet, the law also says districts can override that if they have a narrow and compelling reason to do so. Several other lawsuits are making their way through the courts.

Venice Chiropractor Signs More than 500 Medical Mask Exemptions for Sarasota Students

The Sarasota County School District has tightened its policy on who can provide medical exemption waivers to the district's mandatory mask policy after a Venice chiropractor provided mask exemption forms for more than 500 children.

The Herald Tribune reports, chiropractor Dan Busch is responsible for nearly a third of all mask medical exemption forms turned into the district. Some families have reported simply acquiring pre-signed forms from his Busch's office without undergoing any form of medical evaluation.

Enforcement of the district's mask policy began Monday. In order to be exempt from the policy students need a form signed by a medical profession stating they can't wear a mask or face shield "due to a medical, physical or psychological contraindication."

Schools superintendent Brennan Asplen updated the policy, Tuesday, to restrict who can sign such exemption forms to medical doctors, osteopathic physicians or advanced registered nurse practitioners.

Students with medical exemptions that don’t meet the new stricter guidelines will be allowed to continue being exempt from mask wearing until Sept. 10 if they don’t get a new form signed.

Daily Changes in COVID Patient Populations Mixed in SW Florida

Lee Health reported Thursday that 596 COVID patients are hospitalized in the system's five hospitals, including 12 pediatric patients, which compares to 619 hospitalized patients the day prior, and marks just the second time in the past month that the number of COVID patients discharged in a 24-hour period has outpaced the number of new admissions.

While this is guardedly positive news, resources are still incredibly strained. Lee Health is at 101% of staffed operational bed capacity with just 3% of ICU rooms available.

Lee Health has 113 COVID patients in intensive care, Sept. 2, including 86 on ventilators.

83% of Lee Health's hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated and 93% of COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System, in Collier County, reported treating 101 COVID patients, Thursday, which is ten fewer than the previous day.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported treating 223 COVID-19 patients, Thursday, down from 265 on Wednesday, and down from a record high of 291 patients on Sunday. Sarasota Memorial has 69 COVID patients in the ICU, Thursday. The hospital now has 120 ICU beds, which is the most since the pandemic began and nearly double the hospital's usual ICU bed capacity.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported four more COVID deaths, Thursday, for a total of 89 fatalities just since Aug. 6. 83% of the hospital's COVID patients are unvaccinated.

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations, and ICU admissions remain extremely high and other hospitals in Southwest Florida are still seeing COVID patient populations increase.

The News-Press reports, the NCH Healthcare System in Collier County had 213 hospitalized COVID patients, Thursday, up from 209 the previous day. NCH reports 288 COVID deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. 76% of the health system's COVID patients are unvaccinated.

NCH is operating at 155% of staffed critical care bed capacity with 57 COVID patients in the ICU, including 39 on ventilators. On Thursday, NCH was operating at 130% of ICU bed capacity.

Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton reported treating 108 COVID patients, yesterday, up from 98 the previous day. And Lakewood Ranch Medical Center had 67 COVID patients, Thursday, compared to 65 patients on Wednesday.

DeSantis Ties Treatment to Dip in Hospitalizations

Governor Ron DeSantis says that his promotion of monoclonal antibody treatment has played a role in a dip in people being hospitalized because of COVID-19.

DeSantis feels the vast majority of people who have received the treatment at state-supported centers would not have known about its availability or had easy access to it before he started touting the treatment.

The state sites are offering monoclonal antibody treatment produced by the drug company Regeneron.

DeSantis said the treatment is designed to help people after they have COVID-19.

“It’s all about early treatment saving lives. Also, keeping people out of the hospital. Nobody wants to be in a hospital or ICU, and obviously the hospitals have had a really trying summer with a lot more patients,” said DeSantis.

Patients do not need to get doctors’ notes for the treatment at the state-run clinics.

As of Wednesday, Florida had 15,177 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to data posted on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, which is down by about 500 patients from Tuesday. About one in three patients hospitalized in Florida have COVID-19.

Despite being offered at state-run clinics, all of Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatments were purchased by the federal government, which is where Florida’s supply comes from and health experts continue to emphasize that COVID prevention efforts like vaccination are more effective tools for combating the pandemic.

Lehigh Acres Couple Charged with COVID Relief Funding Fraud

A Lehigh Acres couple face COVID relief funding fraud charges in a federal indictment unsealed, Thursday. The News-Press reports, Amber Bruey,34, and Anthony Bruey, 35, could face up to 30 years in prison on charges including wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and illegal monetary transactions.

According to the indictment, the Brueys conspired to submit false and fraudulent Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection Program applications to the Small Business Administration and PPP loan lenders.

The government is seeking forfeiture of several automobiles and a property in North Carolina and more than $881,000 dollars tracible to fraudulently received funding.

The News-Press reports, the case is similar to last year's indictment of North Fort Myers roofer Casey Crowther who falsely acquired $2 million in COVID-19 relief funding. He began serving a three-year prison sentence in July.

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