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COVID-19 Morning Report

Dorah Cerisene, 9, gets tested for COVID-19, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida schools are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, forcing teachers and students to quarantine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Marta Lavandier/AP
Dorah Cerisene, 9, gets tested for COVID-19, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida schools are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, forcing teachers and students to quarantine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

DeSantis Appeals Ruling Striking Down Executive Order Barring Student Mask Mandates

Attorneys for the state have filed an appeal to a Leon County circuit court judge's ruling striking down Governor Ron DeSantis' executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates on students.

The ruling stated that DeSantis' order was an overreach of his authority. The AP reports, the case now heads to the 15 judges on the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

At issue is whether a new state law dubbed the "Parents Bill of Rights" gives parents the ability to decide whether their kids will wear masks in schools, or whether the law gives school district officials the authority to impose mask policies.

A Leon County judge is being asked to immediately lift the automatic stay that effectively allows school districts to continue enforcing local mask mandates as the legal case wears on.

Education Commissioner Threatens to Withhold Funds to Lee County Schools Over Mask Mandate

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Lee County School District Superintendent Ken Savage and School Board Chair Debbie Jordan, last week, threatening to withhold state funding from the district due to its mask-wearing policy for students.

The Lee School District's mask policy provides an opt-out option only with a doctor's note. The News-Press reports, Corcoran's letter says that violates a rule established by the state Surgeon General and adopted by the Florida Department of Health Aug. 6, that allows parents to decide whether their kids will wear masks in schools.

Corcoran said he intends to withhold funding in the amount of school board members' salaries as well as imposing other sanctions, until the district complies.

A school district spokesman said the district's legal team is reviewing the letter. The district was given until 10 a.m. Sept. 8 to respond, documenting how it plans to comply with the Department of Health rule.

The Lee County School District is one of more than a dozen around the state that Corcoran has threatened to withhold funding from over student mask mandates.

Sarasota School Board Chair Defends Student Mask Mandate

Sarasota County School Board Chair Shirley Brown says mask wearing is needed in area schools, despite the district being among those targeted by Education Commission Richard Corcoran over a mandatory mask rule.

For Brown, her worry is not about funds from schools being affected, but the safety of students after many contracted COVID-19.

“We have 1,000 of them test positive last week. That's pretty rough and a lot of people are thinking, ‘Well, this isn't a big issue,’ but a third of all these new COVID cases with this delta variant are for children under the age of 18,” said Brown.

Brown also said that it’s in the Parents’ Bill of Rights law to mandate masks because the school board showed a common interest when COVID-19 cases started to increase.

Department of Health COVID-19 Death Data Reporting Misleads the Public

The Florida Department of Health, last month, changed the way it reports the number of deaths from COVID-19. The department now records deaths by the date someone died, which may be days or weeks ago.

University of South Florida epidemiologist Dr. Jason Salemi said this method may mislead people to believe there's a decline in deaths.

“What you notice when you look at deaths by date reported is you see an artificial decrease during the weekends and it's not because people don't die from COVID-19 over the weekends, it's because certification and reporting move more slowly,” said Salemi.

He said the new method doesn’t fully represent the number of deaths and can lead to people making decisions based on an "artificial decline."

To address this, Salemi has created a dashboard that uses publicly available information that emphasizes Florida data while making national comparisons.

Despite Drop in Florida Hospitalizations, More People Need to Get Vaccinated

Florida’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate decreased by 10% over a seven-day period ending last Friday, Sept. 3, according to the Florida Hospital Association.

The state still has many people hospitalized, though, and hospitals have staffing challenges. The association is urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber also pointed out in a video message, Friday, that although hospitalizations are down, many could have been avoided.

“Most people admitted and dying are unvaccinated, which frankly means most of the suffering is not merely tragic, it’s unnecessary,” said Gelber.

“If you have a business and you want your employees vaccinated, we will send a unit to your business to vaccinate your staff and coworkers.”

Miami Beach mandates that city employees get vaccinated or get tested regularly.

Getting vaccinated is the message Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine professor Dr. Cheryl Holder wants people to hear.

Holder does not approve of taking anything other than the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. She said ivermectin, which is used to treatment parasites in livestock, is dangerous.

“The vaccine works. Get the vaccine. You will decrease your risk of hospitalization,” said Dr. Holder.

She also encourages people to get other vaccines as well.

“We are recommending flu vaccines and there’s no interaction with any of the other vaccines and the coronavirus vaccine. So, get your flu vaccine.”

Doctors recommend getting a COVID booster shot eight months after being fully vaccinated, or six months for those with a compromised immune system.

Water Conservation in Orlando Area Not Enough as Pandemic Prompts Liquid Oxygen Shortage

The Orlando Utilities Commission is reminding customers to conserve water as an unprecedented surge in the coronavirus causes a shortage of liquid oxygen.

Two weeks after making the request, the utility says customers are saving on water, but not enough.

OUC says demand dipped after the initial request but last week was inching back to normal.

Spokesman Tim Trudell says irrigation represents 40% of the demand. He says customers should plan to conserve for two to four weeks.

“It’s not going to be this weekend or even next week. Unfortunately, COVID is not going to go away immediately. We realize it’s going to be a while before we get back to the liquid oxygen we were used to receiving, which was about 10 trucks per week.”

Liquid oxygen is used as a water purifier and also to remove hydrogen sulfide, which causes a rotten egg smell. A boil advisory would be issued should liquid oxygen run out.

Some 14,500 Floridians are hospitalized with COVID-19, a slight decline from recent record highs.

Senate Will Be Open to Public as Pandemic Continues

With Florida legislative committee meetings starting later this month in advance of the 2022 annual law-making session, the state Senate is not planning to limit public access as Florida continues battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Citrus, sent a memo Friday to senators acknowledging questions about COVID-19 protocols.

During the 2021 session, the Senate took a series of steps, including preventing members of the public and lobbyists from attending committee meetings in person, to try to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who is one of Simpson’s top lieutenants, pointed to a need to adjust to the continuing pandemic.

“If it’s something that is going to be with us, we can’t just all go in our homes, shut the door, not have business, not work and not be able to conduct ourselves in a way with the community,” said Stargel.

“So, we are going to work with it the best we can this year.”

During the past two months, the state has been battered by a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths because of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Lawmakers will return to Tallahassee during the week of Sept. 20 for the first round of committee meetings leading up to the 2022 session, which will start in January.

State Lawmakers Up on Florida Finances, Down on New Programs

Florida’s financial outlook is in great shape, barring a direct hit from a hurricane or another pandemic, state officials said Friday.

However, even with an anticipated influx of tax dollars, don’t expect budget leaders to support proposals for new or expanded programs during next year’s annual legislative session.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission accepted a report, Sept. 3, known as the “Long-Range Financial Outlook” from state economists, with lawmakers expected to use the information as they put together a 2022-2023 state budget during the session.

The report shows increasing confidence that the economy is largely returning to normal, after the state’s initial financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, points to the decision to reopen Florida’s economy while other states remained on pandemic lockdown, along with what he calls prudent budgeting by the legislature.

“We got here because we made really sound decisions in the past. So, moving forward we are going to do the exact same thing, regardless of how much money the state has,” said Trumbull.

Last month, state projected lawmakers will have an additional $2.6 billion to play with in general-revenue funds during the current and next fiscal years, along with nearly $6 billion in unspent federal coronavirus stimulus money.

Legislative leaders are cautioning lawmakers that they shouldn’t plan on using extra state revenue for new projects.

Federal Rental Assistance Funds Slow to Reach Sarasota/Manatee Residents

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court recently blocking an extension of the CDC's eviction moratorium imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite receiving $13 million in federal funds for rental assistance relief, Sarasota County has only distributed less than 20% of that money ($2.46 million) to residents in need.

The Herald Tribune reports, the county's Emergency Rental Assistance program began accepting applications in May, but staff and local nonprofits say a reason for the slow payout to residents could be the lengthy and time-consuming process of submitting applications.

The county requires a lot of documentation in order to prevent fraud, which the county would be left responsible for.

Payments are typically made directly to landlords and utility providers, although in cases involving a landlord who won't participate in the rental assistance program, checks can be made directly to tenants.

The situation is similar in Manatee County, where only $2.95 million of the county's $12 million in federal rental assistance relief has been paid out.

Carnival to Restart Tampa Cruises, Will Ask for Proof of Vaccination

Carnival Pride’s new service from Tampa's cruise ship terminal is scheduled to start on Nov. 14.

The company has announcedthat guests booked on their November and December cruises will need to present proof at check-in that they are both vaccinated and have passed a COVID-19 test. They are making exceptions for children under 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated.

The company is doing this is spite of Gov. Ron DeSantis' move to fine companies $5,000 for requiring so-called "vaccine passports." In August, Norwegian Cruise Lines was granted permission by a judge to require vaccinations before boarding a cruise ship in Florida.

Carnival is also setting up rapid testing sites at all of its ports — including Tampa — as a back-up alternative for people who have been vaccinated but can't get a test. Guests will also be asked to wear masks in most indoor gathering spots on the ship.

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