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COVID-19 Morning Report

A group waits to get a COVID-19 test, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Federal health officials say Florida has reported 21,683 new cases of COVID-19, the state's highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic. The state has become the new national epicenter for the virus, accounting for around a fifth of all new cases in the U.S. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has resisted mandatory mask mandates and vaccine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Marta Lavandier/AP
A group waits to get a COVID-19 test, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Federal health officials say Florida has reported 21,683 new cases of COVID-19, the state's highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic. The state has become the new national epicenter for the virus, accounting for around a fifth of all new cases in the U.S. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has resisted mandatory mask mandates and vaccine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

On Friday, Florida reported more than 75,000 COVID-19 cases over the past week, continuing a decline after a surge earlier this summer driven by the more virulent and more transmissible delta variant. Data released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevent brings Florida's average for the past week to more than 10,800 cases per day, although there were 11,275 cases reported Sept. 17.

That compares to a month ago, when the state was averaging more than 21,000 cases per day.

The daily average number of new reported cases over the past week was the lowest since the end of July. The CDC reports, that since the start of the pandemic, Florida has reported just shy of 3.5 million infections.

SWFL Hospitals Continue Decline in Hospitalized COVID-19 Patients

Lee Health reported treating 291 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, Monday morning, which is down from 333 patients on Friday. This continues a gradual patient decline each day that's been taking place in recent days. Since Friday, Lee Health reports having 76 new COVID-19 patient admissions and 87 COVID-19 patient discharges.

Lee Health has nine pediatric COVID-19 patients in Golisano Children's Hospital, which is unchanged from Friday.

About 92% of Lee Health's ICU bed capacity is full, with 77 COVID patients requiring intensive care, including 50 on ventilators. Lee Health reported being at 92% of staffed operational bed capacity.

The health system reported five new deaths of hospitalized COVID patients, Sunday, for a total of 1,101 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Medical experts in Sarasota and Manatee County were among the speakers of a recent virtual panel discussion on the challenges and progress made in battling the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota Memorial Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Manuel Gordillo was among the speakers. He noted that in early June, the hospital had just three COVID-19 patients in the hospital, none of whom were in the ICU.

However, the most recent pandemic surge led to a record high of 291 COVID patients being treated in the hospital on Aug. 29.

In July, about 95% of hospitalized COVID patients at Sarasota Memorial were unvaccinated, and that dropped to about 80% in mid-September. Gordillo said that’s the normal progression of a surge.

In the summer 2020 pandemic surge, Florida hit a peak of more than 10,000 hospitalizations, statewide. This year’s surge has nearly doubled that, hitting roughly 17,000 hospitalized COVID patients, according to the Florida Hospital Association.

President of the Sarasota County branch of the NAACP and project coordinator for the Shots in Arms Coalition, Trevor Harvey also spoke during the panel discussion. The coalition received a $100,000 grant from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation in May, and since then reports a 9% increase in vaccination rates among the Black community and a 20% increase in vaccinations in the Hispanic community.

Fort Myers FHP Trooper Dies of COVID-19

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper in Fort Myers died, Saturday, from complications of COVID-19.

Agency officials announced the death of Brian Pingry, 60, on Sunday. He'd served for seven years with the FHP's Troop F in Fort Myers and worked as a field training officer for new troopers.

Pingry is the third FHP trooper and the 40th Florida law enforcement officer to die from the virus.

The News-Press reports, three staff members with the Lee County Sheriff's Office have died of COVID-19 just since July. Late last month, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno announced an incentive of $100 gift cards for staff members who get the vaccine.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that the coronavirus is the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers nationwide this year.

DeSantis Pledges to Fight Vaccine Mandates

Governor Ron DeSantis is pushing back on employee vaccine mandates put in place recently by the federal government and some local governments in Florida, calling them illegal. DeSantis also said the mandates will make worker shortages in areas like healthcare worse.

DeSantis is railing against the new mandate announced by President Joe Biden. It would, among other things, require businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure every worker is either vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly for the coronavirus. It also requires full vaccination for healthcare workers at hospitals that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding, and that covers nearly every hospital.

“This is not constitutional what he’s doing.,” said DeSantis.

“Everyone in his administration said that they didn’t have the ability to do this. That it shouldn’t be mandated.”

DeSantis is also pushing back on local mandates. He said vaccination requirements some local governments have put in place for their employees run afoul of a new state law.

“If a government agency in the state of Florida forces a vaccine as a condition to employment, that violates Florida law and you will face a $5,000 fine for every single violation,” said DeSantis.

He says some counties could easily rack up millions of dollars in fines. Counties are pushing back on the governor’s claims, saying the law doesn’t prohibit them from requiring employees to get vaccinated. Vince Long is County Administrator in Leon County, where employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 1 or risk losing their jobs.

“We believe that we are on strong legal authority as an employer to require employees to become vaccinated as a condition of employment. That’s our position and again it is currently in effect,” said Long.

One of DeSantis’ main arguments against the mandates is his concern about the impact on the workforce. He uses hospital workers as an example.

“What have we been talking about for so long about the hospitals? It has never been about the beds, even though that’s what they said at the beginning. It’s, you have very short staff sometimes and it’s very hard to get nurses. There’s a shortage. They have contract nurses. There’s all these different things,” said DeSantis.

“Every single hospital, that’s like the number one thing they say. Well, how is that going to help that problem? You’re going to fire all these nurses who have been treating COVID patients? Who’ve been working all this time?”

Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida CEO Justin Senior said that was a concern and was one reason some hospitals had not yet put their own mandates in place, but he said that worry is reduced because nearly all hospitals have to follow the same rules.

“It does take away the possibility that one of your ER nurses is going to go to another ER because all of the emergency rooms, all of the hospitals and emergency rooms by and large are going to take Medicare and Medicaid, but they could go to a private practice. They could to another setting where there is no mandate,” said Senior.

He said another concern for hospitals has been timing. Some people experience a couple days of illness following the a COVID vaccine shot and hospital officials want to make sure their workers aren’t all calling out sick at the same time coronavirus cases are spiking. But he says that should be easier to navigate now also, because many workers have already been vaccinated.

“There were a lot of different concerns back in July and in August that were abated a little bit as the caseloads have started coming down and abated a little bit as hospitals have put out incentives for their workers to become vaccinated in the absence of a mandate; things that have really increased the percentage of hospital workers who have gotten the vaccine,” said Senior.

He also points out that’s it’s not unusual for workers in a healthcare setting to be required to get certain vaccines.

Florida Unemployment Rate Inches Down

Florida’s unemployment rate inched down slightly from July to August, as the labor force continues to grow but the number of people without jobs holds steady.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, on Friday announced the state’s unemployment rate for August stood at 5.0%, down 0.1% from July’s unemployment rate.

The latest report shows 529,000 people qualified as being unemployed, while the state’s workforce grew to 10.54 million workers.

The figures mark the second month since state leaders began to openly push people back into the workforce following COVID-19 layoffs, and they come as the national job-creation total of 235,000 in August was deemed disappointing.

Still, DEO Chief Economist Adrienne Johnston calls Florida’s figures “positive.”

“People are connecting to jobs. They are entering the labor market more and more, and they are actually finding successful employment,” said Johnston.

Florida’s labor force has grown by more than 500,000 people since October, when the state was completing its reopening efforts after the initial hit of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June 2020, when the unemployment rate stood at 11.6%, an estimated 1.15 million Floridians were listed as out of work.

DEO now reports that Florida has recouped 76.8% of the jobs considered lost due to the pandemic.

Study Says Vaccinating Teachers, And Cutting Class Sizes in Half, Could Help Curb COVID Spread

Vaccinating teachers and cutting class sizes in half would go a long way toward curbing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, according to a new study from the University of Miami.

The study, which has been submitted for publication and is not yet peer reviewed, lends further support to policies like vaccine requirements and physical distancing in schools. According to the research, halving class sizes led to a 13.1% drop in infections, and vaccinating teachers led to a 12.5% drop.

Daniel Messinger, the study’s co-author, repurposed data he collected in preschool classrooms with the initial intent of monitoring students’ language development. But when the pandemic hit, he and his colleagues realized the information could be useful for a different purpose: combating COVID-19.

In the four Miami-Dade County Public Schools preschool classrooms where the study was conducted, 11 teachers and 50 children between the ages of 2 and 5 wore vests containing audio recorders as well as location sensors.

While that initial study was intended to help researchers better understand how preschoolers’ conversations with peers and teachers influence the complexity of their speech, the raw data was a record of the movements and interactions in those classrooms.

How close people are to each other and how much time they spend talking to each other are major factors in the spread of COVID-19. So Messinger is now using the data to predict what COVID-19 transmission would look like in these classrooms.

The vests that the students wear include two position sensors, one on each side.

“And so that means we know which way they're facing. And that's quite important from the perspective of COVID," Messinger said.

“We simulated the spread of COVID given the actual observations of where children were and how they had interacted with one another in these classrooms."

As part of the study, Messinger and his team repeated the simulation dozens of times for each individual in the classrooms, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources to predict the likelihood of transmission based on different factors.

“We found that the density of individuals in the classroom — that was the key factor in rates of infection,” he said. “So, if there are fewer individuals in a given space, it's safer.”

Further, the study found that when teachers are vaccinated and class sizes are cut in half, in more than 50% of simulations, the first COVID-19 infection never led to a second one.

Messinger is now repeating his study to incorporate other factors that could influence COVID-19 spread, like universal masking or the prevalence of the more contagious delta variant.

“What this study reminds us is that proximity matters, and density matters,” he said.

For example, he said, his research suggests students should be spread apart as much as possible while they are eating snacks and lunch.

“Likewise, preschoolers often take naps, and they typically take naps without their masks on,” said Messinger. “So, the larger the space available when they take their naps, the more separate they can be, and the better off they are.”

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