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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

The latest update from the Florida Department of Health, Thursday evening, reports 443 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the statewide total to 23,340 cases.

State health officials also reported 35 new deaths, bringing the death toll to 668.  There have been 3,458 coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Florida, although that number includes people who have been treated, recovered, and released. 1,454 of Florida’s positive cases of the virus have been detected in nursing homes.

When it comes to the rate of testing, an analysis by the News-Press and the Naples Daily News finds that Florida is behind 20 other states.  The more than 220,000 COVID-19 tests that have been conducted in Florida, so far, account for about one % of the state's population.  Florida’s testing rate is slightly above the national average of 0.95%.  New York has the highest rate with about 2.6 % of the state's population now tested for the virus.

Why Florida's testing rate lags behind is unclear, but the state is more restrictive than others when it comes to who gets tested.  In Florida only people who meet certain guidelines and are showing symptoms are being tested, and even some with symptoms report having a difficult time getting tested.

Meanwhile, officials in Tennessee announced this week that anyone there can get tested for the virus, even if they're not experiencing symptoms.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program has run out of money days after several groups and officials warned the fund was shrinking. Officials are still urging businesses to prepare their applications in anticipation Congress will earmark more funds.

Creators of the Paycheck Protection Program sought to prevent employee layoffs by giving small business owners the money they need to pay their employees. Now, those funds have dried up, leaving many small businesses in Florida floundering.

"If you did not make it on this go around, that's okay. We're very confident, and we're hopeful that Congress will enact a CARES Act part two," says CEO and President of the Florida Bankers Association Alex Sanchez.

The CARES Act was a federal coronavirus relief package that funded the Paycheck Protection Program. While they wait for a potential part two, Sanchez recommends small business owners go to their FDIC bank and fill out all the documentation they need, so they are ready when the program begins accepting applications again.

"There are an awful lot left at the curbside, and all of them were told by Congress that they should continue to pay their payroll, and they will be there to back them up. So, this needs to be fixed," says Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida Bill Herrle.

Presuming the state remains under a stay-at-home order, Herrle says in the worst-case scenario layoffs could start to rise again as they did immediately at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced more than 50,000 businesses had gotten their loans approved. Still, Herrle says there's a big difference between having a loan approved and getting the money wired to an account.

"We're talking about two log jams here. The first is the businesses that were able to get in line quickly, get a loan approved, who are still waiting for that wire transfer... Another equally large population of Florida business owners for whom the money ran out before they could get in line," Herrle says.

Sanchez comments that business owners who already have their loan approved will get their money, but those who haven't will have to wait to see if Congress puts more dollars into the program.

Gov. DeSantis is assembling a team to determine when and how the state can start to reopen after massive economic damage.  DeSantis is expected to have a task force in place by the end of the week amid shuttered businesses and unemployment numbers that continue to spike in Florida and across the nation.

The U.S. Department of Labor, Thursday, reported an estimated 181,000 first-time unemployment claims were filed in Florida during the week ending April 11, putting the state at nearly 600,000 claims over three weeks.

Following the lead of the White House and contending he sees “positive” trends in the fight to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Florida, DeSantis said his task force will provide recommendations about restaurants, schools, tourism, agriculture and other businesses.

“We still don’t know everything about this coronavirus, and we obviously watch the data on hourly basis, even a minute-by-minute basis, but it obviously is prudent to start thinking about and planning for people getting back to work and getting society functioning,” said DeSantis.

Part of the recommendations will involve requirements about testing for the virus.  DeSantis’ task force, which will also include elected officials, comes as business groups have been pushing to reopen parts of the state where many businesses have shut down or dramatically scaled back.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is scheduled to release March unemployment numbers for the state today, April 17.  Payments have been made to roughly just 4% of the more than 800,000 people who have filed jobless claims since the coronavirus started closing businesses across the state.

DeSantis said, Thursday, checks have been sent to 33,623 people who have applied for benefits since the beginning of March through Florida’s troubled unemployment system.   With early qualifiers drawing multiple checks, about $50 million has gone out in state assistance through checks of up to $275 per-person per-week.

DeSantis also signed an executive order to eliminate a requirement for people who qualify for jobless benefits to recertify their claim every two weeks.  On Wednesday, DeSantis removed Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson from oversight of the CONNECT unemployment system.

He put the system into the hands of Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.

Hundreds of call center operators have been rushed through training, paper applications are being processed, and more than 100 computer servers have been brought in to help, according to Satter.

“We have thousands of state employees assisting in the effort, processing the paper applications that have arrived,” said Satter.  “We’re constantly making software upgrades. Technology, as you know, is a complicated enterprise, but we’re making those efforts every day.”

Satter said work continues to make the system more accessible to gig workers and independent contractors who don’t qualify for state assistance but do qualify for the federal assistance.

Gov. DeSantis said, Thursday, he hopes to have a plan by next week to start what he calls "phase two" of the state's coronavirus response. He said it could include changes in rules about restaurants, large events and testing for the virus.   DeSantis said there are more options than just keeping everyone home or taking no action against the virus at all.  He said another option is more testing and isolating people who've come in contact with a coronavirus patient.

“That’s really the bread and butter of public health and obviously you’re going to not go right into having mass gatherings, or some of those other things, but contact tracing is important,” said DeSantis.

“One of the wickets we have is just testing. I think that because you have some of these new rapid tests coming on the market, that’s going to allow us to leverage some of these private labs in a quicker fashion.”

DeSantis said he thinks Floridians want to have a clear path forward, but they want to be sure that path is safe.

The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County is opening a new coronavirus testing site today, April 17, in the northern region of the county.

North Sarasota is a portion of the county with some of the highest numbers of positive COVID-19 cases.  In an effort to avoid crowds of people showing up at the testing site, health officials are not disclosing the location.  Instead, they're giving the address to people once their appointments are confirmed.

A Department of Health official in Sarasota tells the Herald Tribune, they're planning on initially testing about 25 to 30 people a day.  Appointments will only be given to healthcare workers and people showing symptoms who meet current CDC testing guidelines.  They'll also need a physician's referral.

Results of specimens collected at the new site are expected to be returned in about 48 hours. To make an appointment, call 941-861-2883.

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.
Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.