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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gestures as he speaks alongside state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gestures as he speaks alongside state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

DeSantis Defends Vaccine Choice

Governor Ron DeSantis, Tuesday, acknowledged that COVID-19 vaccines save lives and said people who decide not to get the vaccine may be making the wrong decision. Still he said he defends their right to choose. The AP reports, the comment came a day after DeSantis held a campaign-like event, Monday, condemning vaccine mandates.

During Monday's event, Gainesville city employees spoke out against a local requirement that city staff show proof of vaccination or be fired.

One speaker claimed the vaccines change people's RNA, which is leading critics to say DeSantis is spreading anti-vaccine theories, but DeSantis said he doesn't share that opinion.

SW Florida Hospitals Continue COVID Patient Decline

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Lee Health hospitals has declined every day for the past week even as capacity issues remain a significant challenge.

As of Sept. 14, Lee Health reported treating 394 COVID-19 patients, which is down from 423 patients Monday, and marks the lowest number of coronavirus patients since early August.

Eight of those cases are pediatric patients in the Golisano Children's Hospital, up from six patients the day prior.

Currently 96% of ICU rooms are full with 85 COVID patients requiring intensive care, including 70 on ventilators.

Lee Health reported seven more in-hospital COVID deaths, Tuesday, for a total of 1,056 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

During a Tuesday press conference, Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci addressed President Joe Biden's recent announcement of a forthcoming federal rule requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to make sure staff are vaccinated or are being tested weekly for the virus. Antonucci says that with more than 13,000 employees and with Lee Health being a healthcare provider that receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding, the proposed new rule would apply and that Lee Health plans to comply.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported treating 207 COVID patients, Tuesday, which is down from 216 on Monday and down from 242 last Friday. As of Sept. 14, 85% were unvaccinated. The Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota Memorial had 66 COVID patients in the ICU, Tuesday.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported eight more COVID deaths, yesterday, for a total of 74 deaths so far this month along, and 425 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton reported four more COVID deaths, Tuesday, for a total of 133, just since June 1.

DeSantis Administration Is Passing Up On $820M To Feed Hungry Kids

Advocates working to end childhood hunger and Democratic politicians are angry with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. His administration is passing up $820 million in federal funding to help feed poor kids.

The money was intended to make sure students learning remotely during the pandemic would still get free meals. Since Florida schools have been open since last school year, the DeSantis administration argues eligible families don’t need the extra $375 per child.

State Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, opposes passing up the federal funding.

“If the justification for not accepting this money is that schools are open, just look at the quarantine numbers,” said Bartleman.

She notes that since the start of the school year, thousands of students around the state have had to stay home because of an exposure.

“When children have to go home, and their cupboards are bare, and the refrigerators are empty, and they have to sit home for seven days, 14 days — they're not eating, and this money would take care of those children.”

A spokeswoman for DeSantis said schools have received other federal COVID-19 relief funds that can be used to pay for providing meals to students who are learning from home. Critics say the governor’s position is out of touch with the reality of how much Floridians are struggling to put food on the table.

Lee Schools Loosen Mask Mandate, Allow Parents to Opt Out

The Lee County School District is reversing course on its mask policy for students, and is again, allowing parents to opt their children out of the requirement.

Earlier, the district adopted a 30-day mask policy with exemptions only for those with a doctor's note.

About two weeks ago, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Lee school district officials threatening to withhold state funding in the amount of school board members' salaries and impose other sanctions, because of the mask policy.

Lee Schools superintendent Ken Savage announced the policy change in a letter Monday, that also rehashed the ongoing legal battle in Florida over mask requirements in schools.

Parents suing to overturn Gov. Ron DeSantis’s effort to ban school mask mandates, are asking the Florida Supreme Court to take up the case. A state appeals court ruled last Friday that the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools could take effect while the issue is litigated.

The News-Press reports, so far this school year, there have been more than 5,300 COVID-19 cases in Lee County schools, which is about 1,200 more cases than were reported in the entire previous school year.

Sarasota Parents Get Mask Exemption Doctor’s Notes at Venice Event

Thousands of people turned out for a school mask-exemption event in Venice, Sunday, where two physicians were signing forms to exempt students from the Sarasota County School District's mask-wearing policy.

The Herald Tribune reports, the event was held at a wedding venue called The Hollow, and also included a cookout, and an appearance from former President Donald Trump's first national security advisor Michael Flynn.

Sarasota School district officials imposed a 90-day mask mandate last month, that does allow for medical exemptions. The district tightened its policy on what medical professionals were qualified to sign medical exemption forms after Venice chiropractor, Dan Busch gave out hundreds of mask exemptions during the first weeks of school.

A school district spokesman said Monday, they were bracing for up to 2,000 new medical mask exemptions stemming from the weekend event.

Florida's Deputy Secretary for Health Resigns

Florida Deputy Secretary for Health Shamarial Roberson is stepping down from her role. Roberson’s announcement follows the resignation of Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees.

Roberson has been central to Florida’s COVID-19 tracking and response efforts throughout the pandemic. In a statement Roberson praised her teams for their work, as she said, “around the clock” to support COVID-19 mitigation. Roberson will leave the Department Oct. 14. Outgoing Surgeon General Scott Rivkees’s last day is next week.

Leon County's COVID-19 Mitigation Policy Remains Unchanged

Leon County is keeping in place its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for employees after Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to fine employers that require its workers to get the shot.

“Based on the comments that have been made that there may be an attempt to issue some sort of an assessment or a fine on the county, in which case that would afford the county due process at that time," said County Administrator Vince Long. "And we would have to take the necessary steps that may be available to us to address that issue."

Long says the county’s vaccination requirement is legal and necessary for the county to do its part to curb the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant.

For now, the county also plans to continue only recommending people wear masks inside all of its buildings. At Tuesday's meeting, county commissioners rejected a proposal to require face coverings. The debate centered on difficulties enforcing the policy.

All county employees must get vaccinated by Oct. 1, unless they get a religious or medical exemption.

Long says county officials object to the DeSantis administration's efforts to limit local governments' ability to adopt policy aimed at slowing the spread.

"To limit that in any way, leaves us with fewer options and potentially the worst-case scenario in our community."

Palm Beach County Health Director Warn Parents About Off-Label Use of COVID Vaccine

The Director of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County said she’s seen a significant decrease COVID-19 cases in the last seven days.

Speaking at a County Commission meeting Tuesday, Dr. Alina Alonso said she expects to see a spike during the holidays.

“What we predict is that this will continue to go down a little bit more and then as we get into the holidays, the travel, the holidays and New Year’s, that we’ll see that spike that we saw in January to go up again. So, we have to be ready. We can’t let our guard down,” said Alonso.

She also warned parents against using off-label use of COVID vaccines on children under 12 years old.

“The FDA has warned parents who desperately want to do this, not to do it until the studies are completed or if they’re part of a control study that’s going on. We really want them to have that emergency authorization and not just do it on their own until the studies are finished.”

Health officials attribute the downward COVID trend to sustained vaccination efforts for authorized age groups.

Collier Releases Plans for American Rescue Plan Funds

Collier County government officials have released a report outlining plans for how the county will spend more than $74 million in federal money provided through the American Rescue Plan.

The plan calls for allocating about $28 million for public health services, $21.5 million for mitigating economic impacts of the pandemic, $9.8 million for disproportionately impacted communities in Collier, $9.2 million for upgrades to water infrastructure, and nearly $6 million dollars to cover administrative costs.

The Naples Daily News reports, part of that spending includes $2,000 bonuses for EMS workers who’ve been on the frontlines during the pandemic.

The county has until the end of 2026 to complete projects funded through American Rescue Plan dollars. Nationwide, the American Rescue Plan Act allocated $350 billion in federal funding to state and local governments. Last year, Collier County received about $67.1 million through the federal CARES Act.

Sarasota Arts Community Unites Over COVID Protocols

A consortium of arts organizations in Southwest Florida announced plans, Monday, to follow a uniform set of COVID-19 safety protocols at their performances.

Organizations involved include the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, Hermitage Artist Retreat, The Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

The new pandemic policies take effect Sept. 26 and require all patrons six and older to wear masks at all times while indoors.

The Herald Tribune reports, unvaccinated patrons who are 12 and older most show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The tests can be taken up to 72 hours prior to a performance if it's a PCR test, or 24 hours before a performance if it's an antigen or rapid test. At home test results will not be valid, and photo ID will also be required.

Patrons who can show proof of full vaccination at least 14 days prior to a performance will not be required to show proof of a negative test. State law prevents the organizations from requiring proof of vaccination.

Other arts organizations in the region may join in the uniform COVID safety protocols, which are an extension of the #SafeArtsSarasota initiative, which launched in March in collaboration with the Arts & Culture Alliance of Sarasota County.

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