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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

Governor Ron DeSantis issued a statewide “safer-at-home" order, Wednesday, to help slow the spread of COVID-19. . WGCU’s Andrea Perdomo explains what that means for those in  Florida. DeSantis’ executive order limits the movements of people in Florida who are not providing or engaging in essential services.

That means people who are not employees of a business that has been deemed essential by guidelines set by the Department of Homeland Security, seeking medical care, trying to purchase essentials like gas, food and medicine, should stay home. 

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office issued a clarification of the statewide order stating people are allowed to attend and conduct religious services during the stay at home order and recreational activities like walking, biking, fishing or swimming, are also allowed.

DeSantis did not offer specifics for enforcing the order, but advised people to “exercise good judgement.”

According to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, disregarding the executive order may result in a misdemeanor charge.

Following the announcement of Gov. DeSantis' statewide "Stay at Home" order, Lee County Commissioners were briefed in an emergency session on what the order means for Southwest Florida residents.  The News-Press reports, County Attorney Richard Wesch advised that people engaged in non-exempt travel or business activity could face a second-degree misdemeanor charge, which could carry penalties of up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.  Wesch also advised commissioners that county and municipal governments can't enact provisions beyond what's in the governor's state-wide order.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida, again jumped by more than 1,000 in the last day to 7,773 according to the latest update from the Florida Department of Health.  The number of deaths from COVID 19 in Florida increased by 16 people, Wednesday, for a total of 101 fatalities.

South Florida remains the epicenter of the outbreak in Florida with a disproportionately higher number of cases reported in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. 

In Southwest Florida, Lee County leads with 235 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.  Collier County reports 158 cases and one death.  There have now been 99 reported cases in Sarasota County and 70 in Manatee.  Those counties report three coronavirus-related deaths each.  Charlotte County reports 26 confirmed cases and Hendry and Glades Counties report 4 and 3 cases respectively, with one death in Glades.

As of Tuesday, 63,400 people statewide had been tested.  A News-Press/Naples Daily News analysis finds that’s less than a third of a percent of Florida’s total population of 21.5 million people.

Gov. DeSantis continues to urge patience, as Floridians filing for unemployment deal with an overwhelmed claims system.  Over the past few weeks, the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT claims system has been inundated with new applications for benefits.

The unemployment surge caused by the virus pandemic has caused claims to grow from around 500-per-day at the start of March to more than 25,000 a day now. The state has expanded call-center hours, reassigned 35 DEO employees to help handle claims, is hiring 100 more people and is bringing in an outside vendor to further assist with the increased workload.

DeSantis has also signed an executive order that removed a requirement for people seeking benefits to apply for five jobs a week. However, he said it will take time to process the workload.

“We’re going to work as fast as we can on it, but it is not going to be something that is going to happen, where we’re going to be able to field and process these things overnight just simply because of the magnitude of it,” said DeSantis.

Several Democrats, including Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, say the governor needs to do more to help those who are out of work.  “Floridians are suffering and we as government need to do everything humanly possible to give them some relief,” said Fried. 

“This website and making sure that the unemployment checks get into their pockets as soon as possible is one of our absolute responsibilities.”

Florida offers some of the lowest unemployment-compensation benefits in the country with benefits capped at $275-a-week for 12 weeks.  A $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill approved last week is slated to provide an additional $600-a-week, for four months, to people who qualify for jobless benefits.

Florida Virtual School is increasing its capacity for students, preparing for an influx of more than two million students amid COVID-19 school district closures. The state’s online school is providing more than 100 free courses to K-12 students, including Advanced Placement classes, as brick-and-mortar schools are closed until at least May 1.

Louis Algaze directs Florida Virtual School, which he says is poised to add the capacity for more than 2 million students more than it served last year.  “Our IT team is ramping up servers on a staggered schedule, increasing our capacity over the next few weeks and month to ultimately serve 2.7 million students by May 4, 2020,” said Algaze.

The online school has also launched resources for teachers, like a six-hour virtual teacher training. Florida Virtual School provides service to students statewide, and reports it served more than 215,000 students in the 2018-2019 school year. The list of classes Florida Virtual School is offering can be found at its website: FLVS-dot-net.

Nurses at hospitals across Florida and the U.S. are holding protests Wednesday and Thursday over a lack of protective equipment.  It’s part of a nationwide protest of hospitals owned by HCA Healthcare, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain.  The National Nurses United union said its survey of members shows HCA nurses report having less access to personal protective equipment than nurses at other hospitals.  Marissa Lee is a registered nurse at an HCA hospital labor and delivery unit.  She said they aren’t able to get an N95 mask until a patient tests positive for COVID-19.

“Now the ER nurses, if the patient comes in and has symptoms, yes, they’re given a mask,” said Lee.  “But on the floor, until we have a positive result, they will say a surgical mask is sufficient. And a surgical mask isn’t sufficient.”

Protective equipment includes equipment like N95 masks and powered air-purifying respirator helmets known as PAPR.  HCA did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

Thursday protest sites include the Blake Medical Center in Bradenton and Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. Both of those demonstrations are scheduled for 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.

Farmers who depended on restaurants to sell their goods are facing challenges. Restaurants are canceling orders from farms, and now Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says excess produce is sitting on shelves with nowhere to go. She’s calling upon the U.S Department of Agriculture to allow her agency to purchase this surplus to use in emergency food assistance programs. Fried is also asking the department to act swiftly in giving farmers financial assistance.

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.