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COVID-19 Morning Report

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State Ed Board Will Look At Districts With Mask Mandates Next Week. Many, Like Leon, Could Face Penalties

The Florida Board of Education is likely to find nearly a dozen school districts are or have been violating the state’s school mask rules. The board is expected to get an update on the districts at a meeting next week.

Leon County School Board member Darryl Jones worries lessening local safety protocols will lead to a resurgence of the virus.

"I think that those safety protocols that we put in place keep us safe and continue to keep us safe rather than us possibly change and lessen those protocols which could find us in a reverse track," Jones said during this week's school board meeting.

On Monday, Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced changes to the district's quarantine process. Students who are asymptomatic will no longer have to stay home. They can go to school, but will have to wear face masks. Hanna says he supports the state's change on quarantine policies.

The change comes after the Florida Department of Health revamped its rules governing school COVID protocols. The rewritten rule also revised language around face masks, making it explicit that parents only have the right to decide whether to allow their children to wear face coverings at school.

The changed rule led an administrative law judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by several school districts with mandatory mask policies, including Leon.

Hanna says the district, along with several others, will refile their lawsuit as early as next week.

Also next week, the State Board of Education will hear an update on districts that are defying Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order barring mandatory mask policies. The Department of Health's rule is an outgrowth of that executive order. Alachua County School Board members are already being fined for their mandatory mask policy and more districts could follow.

Alachua, along with several others, only allows parents to opt out of the policy if they have a medical excuse.

The federal government is backfilling funding the district has lost.

Sarasota School Board To Vote on Mask Mandate Repeal

Sarasota County School Board members will vote next Tuesday on whether to repeal the school district's mask mandate.

The Herald Tribune reports, the Sarasota County School District is one of 11 districts across Florida that have been summoned to appear before the state Board of Education next week due to mask policies that are out of compliance with state directives.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to district officials last week threatening to withhold state funding to the district in the amount of school board members' salaries.

The Sarasota School District's mask policy made mask wearing optional, this week, after the county's single-day COVID-19 positivity rate fell below 8% for three consecutive days. The district's current policy could re-impose mandatory mask wearing should the positivity rate rise above 10% again.

School Board member Bridget Ziegler requested a special meeting to consider repealing the district's mask-wearing policy.

Federal COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Hospitals Coming In October

The NCH Healthcare System in Collier County has set Friday, Oct.1 as the deadline for staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs. The News-Press reports, last week, NCH spokesman Shawn McConnell said less than 300 workers, mostly seasonal and contract employees, have refused to get the vaccine or apply for an exemption.

McConnell said response to NCH's vaccine mandate for workers has been mostly positive and that the health system has experienced an increase in applications with some new hires saying the mandate was why they wanted to work for NCH.

NCH recently reported that about 89% of staff have been fully vaccinated or qualified for an exemption.

President Joe Biden announced in September that all healthcare providers that take Medicare and Medicaid will be required to impose a vaccination mandate for workers and that specific rules would be made available this month.

Lee Health is not imposing a vaccine mandate for the health system's 13,500 workers until the Biden administration announces a specified policy.

Likewise, Sarasota Memorial Hospital has not imposed an employee vaccine mandate, but was offering $500 incentive bonuses to workers who got vaccinated by Oct. 1. Sarasota Memorial reported, Thursday, that 80% of its workforce has been vaccinated including a 90% vaccination rate specifically among medical staff.

Lee Health reports that as of last month about 8,400 individual vaccine doses had been administered to staff members, including doses for 6,400 workers with direct patient contact.

Other hospitals across the state are not waiting for a federal policy before imposing their own employee vaccine mandates including Jackson Health in Miami, Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Baptist Health, Ascension Health in Jacksonville and the Panhandle, and Nemours Children's Hospital System in Jacksonville.

The Florida Hospital Association is waiting for the release of details on the Biden Administration's vaccine mandate before taking a position. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association came out strongly in favor of vaccine mandates this past summer.

Nearly 40% of COVID-19 Deaths in Lee Health Hospitals Have Been In The Past Two Months

When it comes to deaths of COVID-19 patients in Lee Health hospitals, the last two months have been the worst since the pandemic began, due to the highly transmissible and more virulent delta variant of the coronavirus.

A News-Press analysis finds that about four of every 10 COVID-19 deaths in Lee Health hospitals have occurred just since the beginning of August.

As of Friday morning, Lee Health has reported 1,169 deaths of COVID patients since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Lee Health reports having 126 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals this morning, down from a record high of 657 COVID patients on Aug. 26. Four days later, Lee Health reported 18 deaths of coronavirus patients, marking the highest single day fatality rate, four months after all adults in the U.S. became eligible for the vaccine.

University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said what Florida has experienced in terms of hospitalizations and deaths in the summer pandemic surge was preventable.

An overwhelming majority of medical experts agree that vaccination is the best safety measure to prevent serious infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published studies in mid-September showing that unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection than those who are vaccinated.

As of Tuesday, about 58% of Lee County residents were fully vaccinated. The county ranks 18th among all of Florida's 67 counties when it comes to vaccination rates. Florida's statewide vaccination rate stands at 60%.

Report projects Florida will be short nearly 60,000 nurses by 2035

Florida doesn't have enough nurses right now, and a new report shows the state could be nearly 60,000 short by 2035.

The report commissioned by the Florida Hospital Association and Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida projects by that time, the state will lack 37,400 registered nurses (RN) and 21,700 licensed practical nurses (LPN) needed to care for all of its residents.

“We know that Florida’s population is increasing rapidly, and when you have that kind of population increase, you have a commensurate increase in the need for health care services. So we’ve got to have the health care workforce to support that increased demand now and into the future,” said FHA president and former state health secretary Mary Mayhew.

The report projects rural parts of the state will be most affected by the shortage, particularly when it comes to registered nurses who have more advanced training.

Nursing shortages are not unique to Florida, nor are they only a problem for the future. The association reports there was already an 11 percent vacancy rate for nurses in the state this spring.

Mayhew said one in four registered nurses and one in three critical care nurses left their jobs in the last year. And pandemic disruptions to education made it more difficult to get new nurses into the workforce.

She said one only has to look at the last couple months when hospitals were overwhelmed with record numbers of COVID patients to understand how care could be affected long-term if things don't change.

“Our hospitals and their staff did a phenomenal job responding to the demand, but we definitely had hospitals that could not accept any new transfers of patients because they didn’t have the staff to support those transfers. That’s the reality when you don’t have enough staff to respond,” said Mayhew.

The report released Thursday from analytics company IHS Markit estimates an additional 4,000 nurses would need to enter the workforce each year until 2035 to address the projected shortfall. It identifies nine actions that could help to improve the situation.

Many revolve around education. Mayhew said it’s critical to provide existing nurses resources to enhance their training and further their careers. And she said colleges and universities need help hiring more faculty to recruit and train the next generation of health care workers.

Programs with low passing rates for nursing licensing exams should also be evaluated to identify what steps need to be taken to improve the state’s overall passing rate, which is below the national average.

Other recommendations are geared toward retaining nurses currently in the workforce who have had an incredibly challenging 18 months during the pandemic, in what was already a demanding job. The report calls for studies to understand why nurses move to or leave Florida, and why nurses have left the workforce, in order to help hospitals improve retention programs and recruit staff from other states.

“It is our hope that this study will provide valuable information to all of those in leadership positions about the state’s near-future nursing needs. These needs require a thoughtful, all-encompassing approach to educating, training, recruiting, and retaining Florida’s present and future nurses,” Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said in a statement.

State Expects Employment Push to Start Paying Off

With weekly unemployment claims rolling in at pre-pandemic numbers, state leaders say they remain optimistic about seeing results from a summer push to get people back into the labor force.

A U.S. Department of Labor report issued Thursday estimates that 6,500 new jobless claims were filed in Florida during the week that ended Sept. 25, down nearly 3,000 from the prior week.

The average is far below an April 2020 peak, when the weekly average of claims topped 322,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive economic upheaval.

State officials in recent months have pressured people to return to the workforce, including cutting off $300 a week in federal unemployment aid for many jobless people. This week, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle told Enterprise Florida board members that those efforts should soon start to pay off.

“We are well on our way towards that full recovery. However, the state still does have over 500,000 jobs available and still over 500,000 who are unemployed. So, there is a disconnect in our economy, and that is the call to action,” said Eagle.

One of the biggest hurdles remains finding people to work in the leisure and hospitality industries, which were among the hardest-hit fields during the pandemic. Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson calls the situation with job openings a crisis that is holding back the state’s economic progress.

“Right now, the elephant in the room is we have more jobs than we have people qualified to fill those jobs. This is a problem all across the country, but it's one that's really going to slow Florida,” said Wilson.

Florida had a 5.0 % unemployment rate in August, representing 529,000 people qualifying as being unemployed out of a workforce of 10.54 million.

Bill Would Keep Exempt Religious Institutions From Lockdowns Unless There's A "Compelling State Interest"

A proposal by two Republican Florida lawmakers would exempt religious institutions from emergency orders. SB 254 and HB 215 are being introduced in response to government-imposed shutdowns at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Early lockdown orders across the country included religious institutions like churches, mosques and synagogues. State Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, and State Rep. Nick DeCaglie, R-Largo, suggest those institutions should not have been shuttered in the first place. Their proposal prevents governments from outright stopping religious institutions from doing their regular services and activities. But the one-page proposal also includes a caveat: the government can shut down such organizations if there’s a compelling state interest.

The language could generate some debate if the proposal is taken up. Last year’s Parental Bill of Rights legislation also contains similar language about compelling state interests, and it is currently part of lawsuits over an executive order and associated agency rules preventing school mask mandates.

Florida Families Set To Receive $1 Billion in Federal Pandemic Relief Funds

Following weeks of political controversy, Florida families with children are now set to receive more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. The AP reports, this means qualifying Florida families will receive one-time grants of $375 per child through a program created by Congress last year to assist children who lost access to free and reduced-price school meals when instruction shifted from in-person to virtual.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the state's Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer plan.

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