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COVID-19 Morning Update

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Florida Department of Health
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The total number of COVID-19 cases in Florida jumped 35% in one day and now stands at 2,359 according to the latest update from the Florida Department of Health.  The number of deaths is now up to 29.

The South Florida Counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach remain the epicenter of the outbreak in Florida with the highest number of cases.  In Southwest Florida there have been 67 confirmed coronavirus cases in Collier County, 66 cases in Lee County, 34 cases in Sarasota County and four cases in Charlotte County.

Governor Ron DeSantis said, Thursday, that rising unemployment and forcing people to stay home may cause long-term mental health consequences.  Federal numbers released, Thursday, show the highest number of jobless claims in American history, with 3.3 million people filing for unemployment last week – that's nearly five times as many as during the peak of the Great Recession a decade ago.

Gov. DeSantis has shut down bars and restaurants, cut off visitation at nursing homes and prisons, and ordered senior citizens to stay home.  The governor’s efforts have sparked a partisan divide over whether he needs to do more to protect Floridians.  DeSantis has issued a series of executive orders aimed at limiting face-to-face interactions and has encouraged Floridians to practice “social distancing” on their own.

However, he has avoided a more hardline statewide approach, citing concerns about intensifying the virus’ negative impact on the state’s economy and the mental health of residents. DeSantis said, “I really worry about suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse if this is allowed to go for months and months on end.”

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will release February unemployment numbers today, March 27.  The full impact of the coronavirus on Florida's economy likely won’t be seen until April, when jobless claims for March are released.

More than 74,000 Floridians filed for unemployment last week, which is the highest weekly amount since the Great Recession in 2009. It’s part of a nationwide surge in jobless claims.

Florida's tourism-based economy has already suffered severe blows with closed beaches and theme parks, docked cruise ships, and shuttered restaurants. Conversely, unemployment hit a record low in January.  Florida offers 12 weeks of unemployment benefits that top out at $275 a week, making the state's jobless benefits the lowest in the nation. The online application system for unemployment benefits has been overwhelmed.

Unemployed workers will get a boost from the stimulus bill making its way through Congress, which includes expanded benefits for those who lost jobs due to coronavirus.

Meanwhile the Florida AFL-CIO is criticizing the Department of Economic Opportunity, saying its efforts to waive some requirements for unemployment are not enough to help the wave of applicants that are bound to come.  “The suspension of work requirements is a drop in the bucket of what they need to do to get people through the door,” said Florida AFL-CIO Director of Politics and Public Policy Rich Templin. 

“I can’t say this enough:  Only a third of workers are qualifying.”

Collier County Commissioners will hold an emergency meeting today, March 27, to consider imposing a "stay at home" order that would also call on all non-essential businesses to close.

The Naples Daily News reports, Commission Chairman Burt Saunders called the emergency meeting that will be streamed live on the county's website at 1:00 p.m.  The order would require all people in Collier County to stay home, with some exceptions.  All non-essential businesses would be required to cease all activity aside from "minimum basic operations."  Hotels and short-term rentals would also have to stop taking new reservations.  The proposed order includes a list of businesses considered essential including grocery stores, gas stations, banks and nursing homes.

If passed, the order would apply to Marco Island and the city of Naples, although local officials could still pass stricter measures in those municipalities.

As all levels of government are struggling to find the best way to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, response plans in the rural Collier County community of Immokalee are still in an incubation period.

During a conference call on Wednesday with local leaders, Department of Health Collier, and Immokalee-based nonprofits, there were a lot of questions but few answers. Immokalee is a town with no hospital beds, people living in cramped conditions, and a large workforce who can’t work remotely. Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers asked a piercing question to county leaders.

“When the amount of people who are sick—and seriously sick—in Immokalee starts to spike what are we going to do? What is the plan for Immokalee when we spike?”

Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services Director Dan Summers said there wasn’t a timeline in place yet.

“But what I can say is as we get direction from DOH trying to evaluate those needs, that will certainly drive the timeline,” Summers said. “You know, we’re doing all these things to start looking at identifying options, we’re under a state of emergency and under that state of emergency, what takes days in government we can do in hours, so I think we’re well positioned as we go through that review.”

Immokalee Division Director for DOH-Collier Mark Lemke said a call center has been set up by the county to screen those who may have COVID-19. The screening criteria are the same as they are statewide: close contact with a COVID-19 positive case, travel to a widespread area, 65 years of age or older, immune compromised, or symptomatic health care workers or first responders with direct contact.

Dawn Montecalvo, president of the Guadalupe Center said the criteria detailed by DOH would not be relevant to those living in Immokalee.

“My concern is the criteria that you’ve shared in the process most of the people in our community will not be able to go through that or meet it, because they don’t know if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive,” Montecalvo said.

Montecalvo expressed a necessity to bring resources to deal with a potential outbreak to Immokalee.

“The Immokalee community, they don’t come out and ask for help we need to bring the resources to them,” Montecalvo said. “Because as we learned after Hurricane Irma, people didn’t come out and say ‘hey my house was damaged,’ we had to go to them and I think the county sometimes loses focus on that. Having somebody from Immokalee call the [DOH collier number] and fill out a two-page survey they’re not going to do it, they are just going to keep working and they are going to get sicker.”

Lemke said DOH Collier has been in contact with local growers to provide prevention advice, such as sanitizing buses that take farmworkers to fields and directing employees to wash hands before boarding and upon exiting.  

Many agricultural workers and families in Immokalee live in homes and trailers with five or more people. Several nonprofit leaders asked about measures to be taken to isolate people who test positive.

Dan Summers said isolation options are currently being reviewed statewide.

“What I can tell you is that we’re looking well into the future in terms of what those options are and we’ve been on that track for Immokalee for a couple of days,” Summers said. “Part of this really relies on the direction we get from [State Department of Health] epidemiology and what individual situations look for.”

State Rep. Byron Donalds was on the call and suggested for those in Immokalee to look at COVID-19 responses in other rural communities in the state, like Belle Glade are doing for guidance moving forward.

Commissioner William McDaniel, who represents Immokalee’s district was not on the call to answer questions brought by community leaders and has not responded to several WGCU interview requests.

During a news conference, Thursday, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marcino strongly encouraged people to stay home and not gather in groups.  He said law enforcement will be monitoring public areas like parks and waterways - and that anyone who flouts the Department of Health recommendation to stay home will run the risk of arrest.

The City of Sarasota has extended its declaration of a local citywide public health emergency through April 3.

According to a news release the new emergency order authorizes the Sarasota Police Department to disperse gatherings of 10 or more people and emphasizes the need for voluntary compliance with social distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Those who do not voluntarily comply and continue to flagrantly violate social gathering restrictions may be issued a citation by a sworn Sarasota Police Officer. A violation would be considered a second-degree misdemeanor.