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COVID-19 Morning Report

Yuri Samoilov via Flickr Creative Commons

Hospital Officials Address FL House Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee

“Devastating,” is the word Ascension Healthcare Senior Vice president Tom VanOsdol used to describe the coronavirus pandemic as he spoke, Monday before members of the Florida House Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee. He said it’s been devastating for his staff to watch otherwise healthy people die.

“One of our own, one of our very own unvaccinated nurses from our labor and delivery unit contracted COVID and was hospitalized for weeks until ultimately COVID took both her life and he life of her unborn child,” said VanOsdol.

He said many hospital workers are showing symptoms of trauma and even of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Our care givers are exhausted. They’re fatigued mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Many are facing post-traumatic stress from the loss they’ve experienced,” said VanOsdol.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has also been devastating financially for many hospitals. Revenue has been dramatically cut short as hospitals put elective surgeries on hold to focus on emergent care and COVID cases.

Meanwhile, many hospitals are hiring traveling nurses to fill the gaps as surging COVID cases exacerbate staffing shortages. VanOsdol said that often means paying those nurses five to six the normal hourly rate.

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic President of Tampa General President John Couris also addressed the legislative committee about financial challenges stemming from the pandemic.

“I would like to dispel, I think what I would call urban legend. There’s a sense out there that hospitals are making lots of money related to COVID-19 patients. That is just untrue,” said Couris.

“That has certainly not been the experience for Tampa General Hospital and I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that has not been there experience either. This is extremely costly to care for these patients.”

Couris estimates Tampa General Hospital is about $90 million “in the red” from pandemic-related costs. He said the hospitals has spent more than $17 million paying traveling nurses to help cover staffing shortages and provide care during coronavirus case surges.

COVID-19 patients tend to require more care and longer hospital stays, which can put a strain on staff. Traveling nurses are one solution many hospitals have used to help reduce that pressure, but they come at a much higher cost. Couris told a panel of Florida lawmakers Monday he’d like to see the legislature look into creating new rules surrounding traveling nurses that could help keep costs lower during public health emergencies.

SWFL Hospitals Report Continued Decline in COVID-19 Patients

Lee Health reported treating 287 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, Tuesday morning, which is down from 291 patients on Monday. This continues a gradual patient decline each day that's been taking place in recent days following a record high of 657 hospitalized COVID patients on Aug. 26.

Lee Health has 11 pediatric COVID-19 patients in Golisano Children's Hospital, down from nine on Monday.

About 94% of Lee Health's ICU bed capacity is full, with 80 COVID patients requiring intensive care, including 52 on ventilators. Lee Health reported being at 92% of staffed operational bed capacity.

The health system reported eight new deaths of hospitalized COVID patients, Tuesday morning, for a total of 1,109 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The NCH Healthcare System in Collier County reported treating 120 COVID patients in its hospitals, Monday. That's 37 fewer patients than a week ago and down from a record high of 232 hospitalized COVID patients on Aug. 22.

NCH was treating three pediatric COVID patients, Monday, which is one more than on Friday.

76% of NCH's COVID patients are unvaccinated.

The News-Press reports, NCH was operating at 113% of staffed and operational bed capacity, Sept. 20, with 53 patients in the ICU, including 24 on ventilators.

Eight more people died from the coronavirus in NCH hospitals over the weekend for a total of 325 fatalities of hospitalized COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic.

Physicians Regional Healthcare system, also in Collier County, was treating 59 hospitalized COVID patients, Monday, down from 74 a week ago.

Meanwhile, Sarasota Memorial Hospital is also continuing to experience declines in its COVID patient population. Sarasota Memorial reported treating 167 COVID patients, Monday, compared to a record high of 291 patients Aug. 29.

The Herald Tribune reports, 84% of Sarasota Memorial's COVID patients are unvaccinated. There are 63 requiring intensive care.

Sarasota Memorial reported ten more deaths of COVID patients over the weekend, for a total of 185 fatalities just in the past six weeks.

State health officials reported 2,468 new COVID-19 deaths across Florida over the past week, bringing the statewide death toll from the pandemic to 51,240 fatalities.

A Sarasota Store Is Suing Florida Over Its Lack of a Vaccine Requirement

In some states, vaccination cards have become the golden ticket to restaurants, bars and stores. But in Florida, businesses are legally not allowed to require proof of vaccination for entry.

The owners of Bead Abode, a Sarasota craft store, are suing the Florida surgeon general over the law.

The store has been closed since March 2020 but wants to reopen its new location in October with safety protocols — such as a proof-of-vaccination requirement to protect customers, said Andrew Boyer, co-owner and legal counsel.

Bead Abode has still been making online sales throughout the pandemic. But most regulars are eager to return in person, Boyer said.

Safety measures like proof of vaccination, also known as "vaccine passports," will make customers feel more protected, he added.

"They want us to provide them with the safest place to come and bead as possible,” he said. “We wouldn’t be pursuing it in this way if this wasn’t something they were asking for.”

Under the law, which took effect July 1, a company — and any worker who enforces a vaccine requirement from customers — would each face a $5,000 fine.

Boyer said the fines are "completely excessive."

"It's devastating for small businesses and large businesses as well," he said.

He also argues the law is unconstitutional.

"It's an egregious government overreach and a violation of First Amendment free speech rights," Boyer said.

The Florida Department of Health declined comment, saying it does not discuss pending litigation.

St. Petersburg Won't Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines for Current Employees, But Will for New Ones

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will not mandate that city employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine — but is making it required for new hires.

In a video shared with employees and released on YouTube Friday, Kriseman encouraged employees to get the shot.

"Yes, it's your body, your choice. But much like riding in a car without a seatbelt, or getting behind the wheel of a car after too many drinks, your choice has consequences," he said.

"Your choice impacts not only you, it impacts your community, but more importantly, it impacts your family."

Kriseman said he considered a mandate for weeks, speaking with health experts, city employees, and labor leaders.

He also said that a mandate would have to have some strength to it, like firing unvaccinated employees or putting them on unpaid leave.

"To me, you can't have a mandate if there is an opt out unrelated to medical or religious reasons. You can't have a mandate without consequences."

But Kriseman said that reducing city services is not something he wants to do.

"A mayor forcing a genuinely frightened person to get the vaccine or get fired isn't going to make us a better organization," he said.

"If a mandate leads to a further reduction in our workforce, as it has in other governments, what impact will that have on city services?" Kriseman added. "Fewer police and firefighters make us less safe. A smaller pavement maintenance crew equals more and bigger potholes. Less sanitation employees means more trash will be piling up."

The city is enacting some new procedures, allowing two hours of paid leave for each vaccination employees receive during work hours, and will be giving people emergency paid sick leave if there are any side effects that make them miss work.

St. Petersburg will also give up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave to vaccinated city employees who test positive for COVID or have to quarantine — but none for people who are not vaccinated.

The city has about 3,500 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor last month said that about 4,700 city employees have until Sept. 30 to receive a vaccination or show a medical or religious reason why they can't. Those who do not would have to get tested every week and wear an N-95 mask.

Hillsborough County announced last week that employees have to receive a vaccine by Oct. 15 or will have to receive weekly testing and wear a mask at work. They could also submit proof of COVID-19 antibodies on a monthly basis if they'd rather not get tested weekly. The county is also offering employees $500 and two extra days off if they submit proof of vaccination.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said last weekthat any Florida city or county that mandates COVID-19 vaccines for its employees will be fined $5,000 per infraction.

It's not clear yet how DeSantis' threat can be applied to the local requirements.

High School Health Teacher Considers How to Side-Step Coronavirus Politics

It’s a month and a half into another unprecedented academic year. Schools have been reporting record numbers of coronavirus cases, and a battle is raging over masks in classrooms.

WMFE reporter Amy Green talked with Wekiva High School health teacher Vinek Blanding about how Covid-19 and the politicized debate over masking are impacting students.

BLANDING: Last year I did a lesson on the coronavirus. I had the kids do a one-page research paper on the coronavirus. They had to incorporate statistics, their opinion. And when I did the lesson the vaccine was not out yet. So they also had to incorporate whether they feel like they will take the vaccine if it’s offered or if their family members will take the vaccine. So it went fairly well, and we had a class discussion on it.

This year, because of the politics around the vaccine and wearing masks, I’m a little hesitant about doing the doing the lesson this year because I think it’s more political than health-related now.

GREEN: When you talked about the coronavirus with your class last year, what kind of questions did the students have about it?

BLANDING: Where did it originate from? You know, would they have a cure soon? They had quite a few questions about the vaccine. They also had questions about different symptoms. So that’s why I had them research it, and then we had a class discussion on it after we researched it.

GREEN: What are you afraid might happen if you tried to teach that lesson with your class this year?

BLANDING: I think if I tried to do the lesson again this year, I think it would turn into more of a political conversation as it relates to who’s Democrat and who’s Republican as opposed to a health question, or just keeping it health-related. Because they have made the vaccination and mask-wearing so political now, I think it will be very difficult for me to have the conversation and in my classroom and it not turn into a political debate.

GREEN: How do you think students are doing this academic year? How do you think they’re coping with the coronavirus cases and the battle over masks? Do your students seem anxious or angry or oblivious about everything? Do they have questions for you about what’s going on?

BLANDING: It’s definitely affected me as a health teacher, honestly, because I’m not able to, or not necessarily not able to. But I don’t feel comfortable right now talking about wearing a mask or vaccine or the coronavirus because it’s so political. Because I don’t want it to turn into a political debate and I give my opinion on whether we should wear masks, whether we should get vaccinated. And then one of my students goes home and complains to their parents about the conversation or the class discussion. And then it’s a problem because, you know, some parents may feel like I’m, you know, forcing my opinion on them.

So I think it’s not really fair that, you know, I’m feeling this way, honestly. And maybe my kids feel like they can’t come to their health teacher and talk about vaccination and mask-wearing because it’s so political.

GREEN: I’ve been speaking with Vinek Blanding, health teacher at Wekiva High School. Thanks for joining us.

BLANDING: Thank you for having me. Alright.

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