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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Judge Again uses Gov. DeSantis’s Own Case Against Him, Says Florida Cannot Punish Districts Over Mask Mandates

Leon County Judge John Cooper again Wednesday used Governor Ron DeSantis’s own arguments to rule against him on mask mandates. Cooper set aside a stay to his original ruling, meaning the State can no longer punish school districts for implementing mask mandates.

In the initial judgment, Cooper ruled in favor of the defense on the health and safety aspects of the case. But it wasn’t for the reason defense counsel Michael Abel seemed to think.

“If we’re talking about safety and we’re talking about health, this court found for the defendants,” Abel said.

Cooper jumped right in:

“I didn’t say I agreed with you. Ever. In fact, I said the overwhelming weight of the evidence favored the plaintiff on that issue. But not overwhelming enough to pass the standard that I think the First District Court of Appeal has, which I must abide by.”

Abel made the argument that assessing the motion based on the idea that masking students could save lives was irresponsible.

Cooper told him he was wrong.

“The evidence in the case was clear,” he said. “Demonstrating that the CDC recommendations of universal masking of students, teachers and staff represents the overwhelming consensus of medical doctors and medical organizations.”

But because some doctors might disagree with the CDC, Cooper said the District Court of Appeal, or DCA, could’ve potentially ruled against him on that count.

Parents’ Bill of Rights

But he remained confident in his initial findings. Cooper said the State’s defense placed most of its focus on the newly signed Parents’ Bill of Rights. DeSantis signed the Bill of Rights into law in July after Republican legislators championed it during the last legislative session.

DeSantis, and subsequently his lawyers, argued that under the Bill of Rights, parents have the ultimate say in medical decisions for a child. They argued the Bill of Rights made mandating masks for health reasons illegal. But Cooper said the State was trying to pick and choose aspects of the Bill of Rights that played in its favor while ignoring parts that didn’t. Cooper said DeSantis violated a bill he signed into law less than a month after doing so.

“This isn’t whether I agree with masking or not,” he said. “The issue is, have I decided the Governor must comply with the laws passed by the Florida Legislature. I say everybody has to do that.”

According to the Bill of Rights, school districts can create health policies if they are rational, meet a compelling need and are narrowly tailored. It gives parents a right to object, but the districts also have the right to defend their policies without prior restraint.

“The bottom line is this case is about enforcing the law as the legislature passed,” Cooper said. “That and the pandemic situation we are in is why I think setting aside this stay is appropriate.”

Cooper said the stay is in effect immediately, which means the Department of Education can no longer withhold salaries or otherwise penalize school districts that implement mask mandates.

The DCA, however, will have the final say.

Lee Schools Respond to DOE Threats Over Mask Mandate

Lee County School District officials responded, Wednesday, to a letter from the Florida Department of Education, arguing that the district is in compliance with state rules regarding mask mandates for students.

The News-Press reports, this comes days after the Florida Department of Education sent an initial letter threatening to withhold state funding in the amount of school board members’ salaries and enforce other sanctions if the district did not follow the state's masking rule.

In a letter to the state education department and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Lee County School Board Chair Debbie Jordan and Superintendent Ken Savage cited the Sept. 2 ruling from a Leon County judge, saying the school district is following state statute.

Lee Health Surpasses 1,000 COVID-19 Patient Deaths

Lee Health has now surpassed the grim milestone of having more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients die while being hospitalized with the virus. On Wednesday, Lee Health officials reported 14 more fatalities, for a total of 1,005 COVID deaths in the health system's hospitals since the start of the pandemic.

As of Wednesday morning, Lee Health reported having 522 COVID patients in its five hospitals, including 14 pediatric patients in the Golisano Children's Hospital. That's a reduction from 525 hospitalized COVID patients the previous day.

Lee Health's resources remain strained at 98% of staffed operational bed capacity. As of Sept. 8, Lee Health was treating 95 COVID patients in the intensive care unit. ICU bed capacity is now 98% full. Of the COVID patients in the ICU, Lee Health released a statement saying, "we sadly know that a lot of those patients will never make it home. While we are cautiously optimistic that we have reached the peak of the current Delta variant outbreak, we are still caring for more patients than we did last summer.”

Meanwhile, the Herald Tribune reports, hospitals in Manatee and Sarasota Counties have seen deaths of hospitalized COVID patients increase significantly in recent days.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported eight more COVID deaths, Sept. 8, with 24 fatalities since last Friday and 119 deaths just since Aug. 6. Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton has reported 117 COVID deaths since June 1, including 35 fatalities in just the past 12 days. Venice Regional Bayfront Health has reported 19 deaths of hospitalized COVID patients since early June.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital changed how it reports COVID patient data, Wednesday. In its tally of the number of hospitalized COVID patients, Sarasota Memorial now includes patients who've been "cleared of infection, but still hospitalized due to complications delaying recovery/discharge."

Using this new methodology, Sarasota Memorial reported having 250 COVID patients in the hospital. Under the old reporting method, that would have been 205 patients, compared to 211 the previous day.

As of Wednesday, Sarasota Memorial reported 76 COVID patients in the ICU. Under the hold reporting method, that would have been 59 patients, compared to 60 on Tuesday.

84% of Sarasota Memorial's COVID patients are unvaccinated.

Manatee Memorial Hospital reported treating 96 COVID patients, yesterday, including ten in the ICU.

Lakewood Ranch Medical Center had 49 hospitalized COVID patients, Wednesday, including nine in intensive care.

Venice Regional Bayfront Health reported treating 31 COVID patients, yesterday, including four in the ICU.

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital Reports More COVID Deaths and Younger Patients

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital has merged its COVID-19 fatality numbers and now reports record deaths from the disease. Hospital officials are also concerned about more infections among young people, and the spread of treatment misinformation.

Tallahassee Memorial Pediatric physician Dr. Thomas Truman said all of the younger people being admitted have at least one thing in common.

"We have seen zero vaccinated children in the pediatric unit of the ICU. They've all been unvaccinated,” said Dr. Truman.

At the same time, TMH Vice President and Chief Integration Officer Dr. Dean Watson worries about adults self-medicating with unproven treatments. He said many legitimate trials had already disproved hydroxychloroquine.

"There was no improvement in outcome. Ivermectin is the same way. There are a lot of studies out there, but not in peer-reviewed journals. We're watching closely. If there are good outcomes related to Invemectin, we're on board,” said Dr. Watson.

Meanwhile, TMH saw a total of 77 combined COVID-19 deaths in August. That was nearly twice the number from the deadliest previous month, which was January 2021 when 43 deaths were recorded. That was right before COVID vaccines became available.

Leon County Indoor Mask Requirement Vote Delayed

Leon County commissioners are postponing a decision to require masks in all county facilities, which include

"There are questions that need to be answered before we take a vote on that," said District 4 Commissioner Brian Welch. "And I’ll likely support that when we get to that point.”

During a COVID-19 emergency meeting Tuesday, commissioners voted to add a proposal to require face coverings in all county buildings to next week's agenda.

At the meeting, public health officials described the latest COVID-19 surge as the worst the county has seen since the pandemic began, but they also assured commissioners cases and hospitalizations are starting to stabilize.

Though Welch seconded a substitute motion to postpone the decision until next week, he expressed optimism the board would pass some kind of mask requirement at next week's meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.

“We had no specific policy proposals to discuss tonight. This was a special information-gathering meeting," Welch said. "I think it is wholly appropriate to take the time — just seven days — to hear from my constituents, hear from county employees, hear from county administration.”

County commissioner Kristin Dozier introduced a motion to require masks inside in all county facilities and buildings that house organizations receiving county grant dollars. Board of County Commissioners Chairman Rick Minor seconded the motion, opening it for discussion.

The only county building where visitors must wear masks is the Leon County Courthouse. Chief Judge Jonathan Sjostrom issued the requirement as cases started to rise during the summer.

“But that is not the case at other county-owned facilities like the library," Welch said.

Welch says questions about where indoor mask requirements would apply remain unanswered — "whether that would apply to buildings that the county owns but doesn’t occupy, like the supervisor of elections building, which we own, but they use."

Last year, the county adopted a mask requirement for all indoor spaces, including private businesses. But the state legislature amended statute to make it harder for local governments to win legal challenges to mask mandates. Some commissioners also expressed reluctance to adopt another universal mask policy without the recommendation from local hospitals.

County Commissioner Kristin Dozier requested last night’s special meeting. But she says she thinks they should've met at the start of the latest surge, driven largely by the highly contagious delta variant.

“We’ve lost more people in August. We had higher call volumes at EMS," Dozier said. "Across the board the metrics were up."

Before commissioners voted, Emergency Management Services Chief Chad Abrams explained the number of response calls had risen by 26% over the last five weeks and 14% since last September. He explained the rate of calls is stabilizing.

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