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COVID-19 Morning Report

Emily Goss goes over school work at the kitchen table with her five-year-old son inside their Monroe, N.C., home on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The Goss' have decided to homeschool Berkeley after the Union County school district chose not to implement a mask mandate for children. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)
Sarah Blake Morgan/AP
Emily Goss goes over school work at the kitchen table with her five-year-old son inside their Monroe, N.C., home on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The Goss' have decided to homeschool Berkeley after the Union County school district chose not to implement a mask mandate for children. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

A Judge Tosses A Mask Lawsuit Filed by Florida School Districts After Department of Health Rewrites Rules

The Florida Department of Health’s rule change has short-circuited a lawsuit filed by several school districts over COVID-19 mitigation protocols. The districts sued the department over language in the rule giving parents the ability to opt their children out of mask wearing.

Florida’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, is critical of school quarantines and raised concerns about them Tuesday during an introductory press conference with reporters.

“Just a perfect example of how glaringly we’ve ignored what public health really means, is how we’ve just brazenly pulled children who need the structure of school…out of school. And we’ve done that…for kids with disabilities,” he said.

A day later, the Department of Health issued an update to its school mask rule citing a need to “minimize the amount of time students are removed from in-person learning.”

The new version of the rule states parents have sole discretion over mask wearing. The rule also says students do not have to quarantine if they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus and have no symptoms.

During a phone hearing Wednesday, an administrative law judge dismissed the case filed by the districts, including Leon. The districts argued there was nothing in the original rule preventing them from requiring a medical reason to opt out of masking. More than a dozen school districts have medical opt out policies and are in conflict with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to get rid of mandatory mask policies in schools.

DeSantis, speaking during Ladapo’s introduction, reiterated his position that students should be kept in school as much as possible.

“Keep these kids in school. If they’re sick, send them home, but healthy kids--they have a right to be in a classroom," the governor said.

Several districts have reported significant numbers of students sent home to quarantine because of potential exposure to the virus—even though they may not be sick or symptomatic.

There are several other lawsuits still pending in state, federal and administrative law courts.

Florida COVID-19 Hospitalizations Continue to Decline

The number of people hospitalized in Florida with COVID-19 is continuing to decrease. The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show about 8,000 Floridians were receiving hospital care for COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon. That’s down by more than 250 patients from data released Tuesday.

The numbers reflect an overall downward trend. The News Service of Florida reports at the beginning of the month, more than 15,000 patients were reported to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

The decrease follows a surge of cases and hospitalizations in Florida this summer stemming from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Sarasota School Board Delays Action on Proposed Changes to Public Comment Policy

Sarasota County School Board members discussed possible changes to its public comment policy, this week, but decided to postpone any decision pending further discussion during a future board meeting.

The proposed changes come after more than a year of school board meetings that have included hours of public comment and heated contention between speakers and school board members.

Proposed changes include restricting the time limit speakers have and restricting comments to subjects actually on a meeting agenda.

The Herald Tribune reports, Superintendent Brennan Asplen says one solution could be holding two public comment periods: one for issues on the meeting's agenda, and another for any other concerns.

Sarasota School Board members are also encouraging the superintendent to modify the district's mask-wearing policy to carve out an exception for people while outdoors on a school campus.

A Florida Department of Health rule change, Wednesday, says parents can opt their kids out of mask wearing for any reason. The Sarasota School district's mask mandate only allows for medical exemptions. How it will be impacted by the new rule remains to be seen.

Florida Has Reversed Course and Will Accept Federal Money for Low-Income Children

State officials announced this week they would reverse course and accept federal money to help low-income children get food for their children.

Florida's Department of Children and Families said it is applying for a federal program that would provide $820 million to the state's low-income children.

The Summer Pandemic Electronic Transfer program provides free funding to states. Those funds are used to provide grocery benefits to children who missed out ono free or reduced-price meals while their school or child care facilities were closed.

Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, says there's a real need in the region for children who aren't getting enough to eat.

"We still have 35% increased need post-pandemic vs. pre-pandemic," Mantz said. "The good news is its way down from the initial crisis that COVID created in our community, but it's still 35% higher than pre-pandemic."

Mantz says one in four children in the greater Tampa Bay region is food insecure.

"Prior to COVID, we had about 650,000 folks who were food insecure," Mantz said. "Right now, we have close to a million. And that's a significant difference. So, for us, the crisis has not passed for the families we've served."

He said a lot of students are not getting free lunches in schools because of quarantines or are not going to school for other reasons.

The Department of Children & Families estimates the P-EBT program assisted about 1.2 million Florida distance learning students during the 2020-21 school year.

How Deadly Is Florida's Delta Surge? A USF Health Expert Breaks It Down

Florida's COVID-19 death toll continues to climb well above 50,000 in what has been the worst wave of the pandemic in the state.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, to get a better understanding of just how deadly the delta surge has been.

Salemi operates a coronavirus dashboard that visualizes data from the state and federal governments and focuses on Florida with national comparisons.

He shared some harrowing statistics:

  • Deaths to-date: 51,892
  • In August, 8,919 people died according to the latest data, or 288 per day. It took 165 days, nearly 6 months, for that number of deaths (>8900) to accumulate prior to August 2021.
  • Peak 7-day average so far in delta surge: 344 deaths per day. Peak during summer 2020 surge: 228 deaths per day.
  • Seniors 65+ account for 77% of COVID-19 deaths. But in just the past seven weeks, the cumulative number of deaths has doubled for every age group younger than 40. Other adults saw significant increases as well.

More from the conversation:

How does our peak this time around compare to the previous high?

Because of reporting anomalies, we like to use seven-day trends when we talk about deaths. Florida’s high in the summer surge of 2020 was 228 deaths per day, over a seven-day window. Our high now during the delta surge is 344 deaths per day, and that actually occurred as of Aug. 24.

So that's an additional 116 people dying every day at our peak in the delta surge, compared to a pre-vaccine peak in the summer of 2020.

We had over 8,900 people who actually died in the month of August over a 31-day window. It took 165 days, nearly six months, for that number of deaths to occur between February 17 and July 31.

Wow, nearly 9,000 deaths in just one month. Seniors still make up a majority of Florida's overall COVID deaths, but we have seen a lot more younger people die during this surge. What's going on?

The vaccines have actually been doing an incredible job in shifting the age distribution of both hospitalizations and deaths to younger people. You might ask, why is it shifting the age distribution? Well, the most heavily vaccinated subgroup in our population are seniors. So proportionately they are realizing the advantages of vaccination more so than younger age groups.

We've had over 80 weeks of the pandemic. In just the past seven weeks, the cumulative number of deaths has doubled for every age group younger than 40.

Another way of thinking about this is, it took us nearly one year to learn of as many new COVID-19 deaths in people younger than 60 as we've learned about in the past seven weeks, nearly a year. So, it has really impacted younger people because of how much transmission has occurred during the delta surge.

We've talked about a lot of numbers here, but obviously these are people. What are your thoughts on this tremendous loss of life?

That really does break my heart. I mean, I am a realist, we ultimately will need to get to a point in this pandemic where we learn to live with COVID-19. It is not realistic for us to just live in a bubble in our homes, but when you think that we've got these amazing, I mean far exceeding most scientists’ expectations on what these vaccines could do to reduce your risk of severe illness and death.

And so, I view a lot of these deaths, I mean, my God, over 340 each day over a seven-day window at our peak – that's a lot of people dying. And I think the overwhelming majority of those were absolutely preventable through either full vaccination, or combined with simple, relatively simple mitigation strategies. And so that's what's been the tough pill to swallow.

Now, don't get me wrong, the delta variant threw a lot at us, you know, being so much more transmissible. But still, most of these deaths could have been prevented.

So, I'm just thankful at this point that the numbers continue to come down. But I think we've got a lot of work left to be done.

We've almost been desensitized to numbers as high as they've gotten. Since the numbers are kind of falling off the cliff, we forget that we're still admitting nearly 1,000 adults in hospitals every single day with COVID-19. We're still experiencing, you know, 10,000 cases every single day. And so it's still on us to do things that we know work to continue to bring down community transmission.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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