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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

Lee Health officials announced, Tuesday, the death of a third coronavirus patient in Lee County.  This latest death involves a 67-year-old man who'd had contact with another confirmed case.  He had been receiving treatment at HealthPark Medical Center in South Fort Myers.

As of the latest update from the Florida Department of Health, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the state now stands at 1,467 including 20 deaths.  Lee County alone has seen 34 cases.  South Florida remains the epicenter of the outbreak with more than half of cases coming from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Governor Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he wants anyone over the age of 65 and anyone with serious medical conditions to stay at home for the next two weeks.  Additionally, DeSantis has asked all non-essential businesses to use at least 50 percent tele-commuting, to  ensure social distancing as the state continues to fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus.  DeSantis said senior citizens are at the greatest risk from the virus.

“Avoid crowds.  Avoid close contact.  You should assume that anyone you may come in contact with could be infected.  So, make sure you keep that safe appropriate six-foot distance or more,” said DeSantis.  “Obviously the easiest way to do that is just to stay at home as much as possible.”

DeSantis is also expanding his directive requiring travelers flying into the state from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-isolate, to include people who flew into Florida from that region in the last three weeks.

To ensure compliance with the directive, DeSantis has dispatched members of the National Guard at busy South Florida airports as well as Orlando International Airport.

Gov. DeSantis has waived work requirements for people applying for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.  Jewish Family Services Director Philip Flynn III said more people have been calling the center for help applying for SNAP benefits in the last 2 weeks.

“By removing the work requirements; by removing that speedbump, it allows the new families coming onto the system to streamline faster and not be even more concerned about ‘Where’s my next job while I’m trying to feed my family?’” said Flynn.

The Governor’s executive order also waives work requirements for people receiving funds through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or TANF.

Jobless claims are spiking in Florida, as many tourism and entertainment related businesses in the state have closed or limited services in reaction to the COVID-19 virus.  On Tuesday, DeSantis said daily claims to the state’s Reemployment Assistance System have jumped significantly in the past few days, as forced closures have affected businesses such as bars, restaurants, theme parks and other vacation destinations.

“We would get 250, 500, 1,000; It would vary on unemployment claims everyday,” said DeSantis.  “These numbers we’ve seen lately:  21,000 unemployment claims yesterday, 18,000 the day before; on March 20 another 21,000.  So this is a huge increase.”

The state currently offers 12 weeks of benefits to jobless workers that top out at $275 per week.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Travel Association projected that nearly six million travel-related jobs in the U.S. will be lost by the end of April due to the coronavirus, doubling the national jobless rate from 3.5% to 7.1%.

Florida’s unemployment rate for January stood at a record low 2.8%.  The Department of Economic Opportunity will release February unemployment numbers on Friday, March 27.

Some policy experts say the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for Medicaid expansion in Florida. Uninsured rates will climb in the state as more people lose their jobs. And people without insurance may not seek care if they're sick and that could cause the virus to spread even more.

Anne Swerlick with the Florida Policy Institute says Florida's current eligibility requirements for Medicaid are strict - both in terms of income limits and categories of people who qualify.

“For example, if you’re a single person, even if you have no income, if you don’t have severe disabilities you’re not going to qualify for Medicaid,” said Swerlick.

States with Medicaid expansion help fill gaps in coverage for people who may not qualify for standard Medicaid, but also don't earn enough to get marketplace subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Florida's marketplace is run by the federal government, which is considering re-opening enrollment periods so more people can sign up for insurance. People who lose their job-based health coverage can enroll at any time.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Florida is suspending jury trials throughout the state until April 17.  The AP reports, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued the suspension order, Tuesday.  The order also expands an earlier suspension of speedy trial rules and related court procedures and directs all state courts to postpone or cancel court proceedings other than essential ones.

The order also includes measures designed to reduce the need for in-person contact in court proceedings as much as possible.

In order to get families ready for online learning in Lee County, the school district will be hosting a virtual town hall today (March 25).

In order to get families ready for online learning in Lee County, the school district will be hosting a virtual town hall on Wednesday, March 25.

Over the last week, Lee Schools has distributed laptops and internet devices to families who need them in preparation for online Distance Learning that will begin March 30.

The district will be hosting a virtual town hall on their Facebook page that will include a presentation on Distance Learning. Members of the district will be answering parents’ questions that can be submitted in advance or in the comment section of the Facebook live.

The town hall will begin at 1 p.m. on March 25, and will be available on the School District of Lee County's Facebook page upon conclusion. 

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.