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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

The Florida Department of Health reported 754 new cases of COVID-19, Monday, bringing the state’s total number of confirmed cases to 5,489.  The death toll has risen to 71 people, including a 39-year-old Lee County man who died last week.  His death marks Florida’s youngest coronavirus-related fatality.

Most reported deaths have been in patients in the 75 to 84 age demographic, followed by patients in the 65 to 74 age group.

During a news conference, Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that FDA-approved rapid COVID-19 testing kits will soon be available in the hardest-hit areas of the state in South Florida.  The tests can produce results in as little as 45 minutes.

The Florida Department of Education has ordered schools be closed until at least April 30.  The new directive comes after President Donald Trump extended federal social distancing guidelines to April 30. Many Florida school districts have taken up distance learning to keep kids engaged academically.

The success of the effort dependents largely on follow through, and whether students have the technology available to make it work. Already there have been concerns regarding distance learning for students with disabilities.

The school year in many counties is slated to be over at the end of May. The Florida Department of Education has previously said it could extend the school year until June 30, but many districts say they’d need help paying for teachers for that time as most teacher contracts are up at the end of the regular school year

Florida U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Orlando), is calling on state officials to bolster Florida’s unemployment benefits system.  Coronavirus shutdowns caused a record-number of Floridians to apply for benefits, which has prompted delays for applicants.  Congressman Soto says an historic $2.2 trillion relief bill includes funding for states to bulk up the systems.

“There’s two multi-billion-dollar funds that the state of Florida can tap into for implementing the various aspects of this bill,” said Congressman Soto.  “I encourage Governor DeSantis and the legislature as well as the cabinet to approve additional hires to take on this incredible volume.”

Earlier this month, a record-breaking more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the course of a week.  Some Floridians are eligible for up to $275-a-week in state benefits and an additional $600-a-week from the federal government.

Meanwhile some state elected officials say they’re having the same trouble as citizens when trying to speak to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity about what’s going on with the unemployment website.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith (D-Orlando), says constituents have complained to him about still being asked to show proof that they are searching for work even though Gov. Ron DeSantis waived that requirement on March 20.

“The system is sending people e-mails telling them to register…to demonstrate that they are actively engaged in the job search.  That is something that is temporarily waived,” said Rep. Guillermo-Smith.  “Now we have lots of questions about how long these technical changes are going to take to implement.”

He said conference calls that were set up with the Florida DEO were canceled at the last minute.

Guillermo-Smith said he wants to know why the state is paying $77 million for a website that can’t process applications and be quickly updated at the volume needed.  The Department has hired a call center to help address the application call volume.

With one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the state, Lee County leaders decided Monday in an emergency meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, not to mandate stay-at-home orders. Instead, County Commissioners voted unanimously to echo the strong suggestion from the State Surgeon General that people voluntarily stay at home.

After hearing from mayors from Sanibel to Cape Coral to Fort Myers Beach, County Commissioners got an update from Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci, who gave an overview of the situation from a medical perspective: Lee County has one of the top two mortality rates in the state at almost 4 %. The number of infected people in the county has tripled since Antonucci met with the board last week. Many other Florida counties and municipalities with similar statistics have mandated the closure of non-essential businesses and issued stay-at-home orders.  But for now, that will not be the case in Lee County.  

Much of the meeting was spent congratulating the public for adhering to the suggested social distancing guidelines.  Others talked of people not following those guidelines. Almost all who spoke lamented the difficulty of closing businesses already aching from a peak tourism season cut short by this virus. 

But in wrapping up his statements, Antonucci said, “a small businessman who suffers due to decisive action will be able to pick up and start again, but the 39-year-old husband and father with two young children, will not. His life has been taken and his family has been forever changed.” Antonucci was talking about Conrad Buchannan, whose friend also addressed the board, urging them to require people stay at home.

Still, commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution which adds nothing to the existing list of suggestions put forward by the Florida State Surgeon General: limiting gatherings to less than ten people and urging people over 65 and with underlying health issues to stay home.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Southwest Florida, nonprofit leaders in Immokalee are concerned with how immigration status would affect those seeking medical treatment during the pandemic.

During a conference call held last week with community leaders, the first question asked was about immigration and if those who are out-of-status could face legal risk while seeking medical treatment.

Immokalee Division Director for Department of Health Collier, Mark Lemke said healthcare providers are not concerned with immigration status of patients.

“We are not asking questions of status, we are not asking for people to tell us whether they are legal or not legal, we’re concerned about their health,” Lemke said.

Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said his office is focused on the health of the community. However, he said he could not speak to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s plans.

“I can’t tell you what ICE can or can’t do, or will or will not do and more often than not, they don’t even tell us if they ever come,” Rambosk said.  “I believe the president’s stand was the community’s health comes first.”

Two Sarasota County nursing homes are treating people with coronavirus.  At a news conference, Monday, Florida Department of Health Officer in Sarasota County, Chuck Henry, acknowledged active cases of COVID-19 in the elder care facilities. He said the department remains in contact with all of the county's assisted living facilities.

“Any time we hear of an illness, even before a diagnosis is made, we’re sending local teams out to meet with staff at those facilities to make sure that those individuals are being properly isolated, that they have the PPE they need and that we’re doing all their infection control procedures to prevent spread within those facilities,” said Henry.

Seniors are most at risk from the illnesses caused by the coronavirus.  Last week, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a health advisory asking people 65 and older and people with serious “underlying medical conditions” to stay in their homes.

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.