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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Florida grew by 1,072, Thursday, for a total of 29,648 cases. Thursday marked the second consecutive day Florida Department of Health  officials reported 60 new deaths linked to the coronavirus for a total of 987 fatalities.

The number of hospitalizations in the state has grown to 4,640 and that number includes people who have recovered and been released as well as those who have died and people still being treated.

9.8% of the 301,721 tests that have been performed in Florida have been positive for the virus.  A total of 2,481 cases have been identified in long-term care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Here in Southwest Florida, Lee County continues to lead with 887 confirmed cases of the virus and 32 deaths, followed by Collier County with 507 cases and 14 deaths. Manatee County reports 473 cases and 39 deaths. In Sarasota there have been 310 cases and 32 deaths. Charlotte County has had 178 cases and 12 deaths. Hendry County reports 59 cases and two deaths and in Glades County there have been five confirmed cases and one death.

Two nursing homes in Manatee County have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus with 23 deaths combined and more than 100 positive cases.  The Braden River Rehabilitation Center in Bradenton reports 11 people affiliated with the facility have died.  Currently, 27 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, including ten people in the hospital and 26 infected staff members.

Meanwhile the Riviera Palms Rehabilitation Center in Palmetto reports 27 residents have tested positive, including eight currently hospitalized and 28 infected staff members. Riviera Palms has had 12 coronavirus-related deaths.

The Herald Tribune reports that of Florida's 67 counties, Manatee has the fourth highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths tied to elder-care facilities. Manatee County also ranks fourth in the number of overall COVID-19-related deaths in the state.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is working to increase testing in long-term care facilities with National Guard troops. In March, DeSantis banned visitation to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.  Operators have also been required to screen employees for symptoms.

The Florida State Emergency Operations Center announced, Thursday, it will demobilize a 250-bed field hospital that was staged in Lee County.  In a statement, the agency said the decision was made because county hospitals have maintained available bed capacity during the pandemic, and that it is poised to deploy field hospitals and staff to Lee County if needed.

Director of Collier's Bureau of Emergency Services, Dan Summers said, this week, during a conference call for the COVID-19 response in Immokalee, that there are no plans to bring field treatment operations to Immokalee.

“Let me just tell you that the severe weather that’s been rolling through our northern part of the state has made any of those field operations quite, quite problematic,” Summers said.  “And our preference right now is obviously for the best care across the board, is what I’m referring to is bricks and mortar and we are in good shape there when it comes to hospital beds.”

Summers attributed the decision to readily available hospital beds in Collier County and neighboring Lee county.

Several calls and e-mails to Director Summers to elaborate on plans for expanding treatment options in Immokalee have not been answered.

Lee Health is participating in Mayo Clinic’s national COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Study. Patients admitted to any Lee Health hospital with a confirmed infection may qualify to enroll. But, the first step is to collect plasma from people who have recovered from the disease.

Convalescent plasma refers to blood plasma collected from people who have recovered from COVID-19 that is then used to treat others with advanced illness.

Lee Health infectious disease doctor Doug Brust said there are two parts to the study.

“The clinical trial itself is giving the plasma to people. The non-clinical trial part is actually obtaining the plasma. So, what we need to do is find people that have recovered from COVID-19 that had a positive test, and now they’re better. And we’re looking for them to come donate blood so we can obtain plasma from that.”

Potential donors will be screened by clinical personnel to make sure they are appropriate to donate blood that will be processed to make COVID-19 convalescent plasma.

To volunteer, email COVID.plasma@LeeHealth.org or call 239-343-2332. (Email preferred.)

Florida Fruit and vegetable growers that once relied on restaurants, schools, and other institutions are finding it difficult to sell their produce to grocery stores. Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association President Mike Joyner said that’s because panic buying has stopped and demand is slow.

“That first week of sheltering in place, we just weren’t moving anything,” said Joyner.

“And now what we’ve seen is it has come back, but it has come back very, very, very slowly. It just really is more in drips and drabs at this point.”

Joyner said it’s too soon to tell what the long-term impacts on Florida agriculture will be.

Dropping gas prices as drivers stay home could be good news for some, but it’s bad news for farmers who grow corn. Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick, said corn is used to make ethanol, and when prices go down for gas, that impacts growers.

“When prices of fuel get below what’s practical to produce ethanol you see a backlog of corn and the same with soy,” said Hoblick. “Soybean and biodiesel; you’ll see some of these products especially be impacted when it comes to commodity pricing.”

During a Re-Open Florida Task Force meeting, Thursday, Hoblick highlighted other sectors of the agriculture industry that people may not think about including bees, plant nurseries and cotton.

City of Fort Myers officials, this week approved the use of city funds to help low to moderate income households and small businesses as they struggle through the coronavirus pandemic.

The News-Press reports Fort Myers city councilmembers unanimously approved the creation of an Emergency Assistance Program of more than $824,000 dollars. The funding will come from the Community Development Block Grant program and the state Housing Initiative Partnership among other sources.

The funds will provide up to $750 dollars a month for three months to cover basics like rent and utility payments. Emergency business loans will be available for small businesses that employ five or fewer people.

City Councilman Johnny Streets proposed the city consider helping some of the local non-profits that were cut out of the city's budget last year to the tune of some $300,000.

As Gov. DeSantis' "Re-Open Florida Task Force" continues to meet and as local officials have begun reopening beaches, new polling shows many Floridians are concerned about the possibility of easing social distancing restrictions too soon.

A Quinnipiac University poll released, Wednesday, finds that 72% of Floridians do not want to loosen social distancing rules at the end of April when the governor's executive order prohibiting people from leaving their homes except for essential services and activities is set to expire.

The poll also finds 76% of Floridians think businesses should only reopen when public health experts say it is safe. Health officials have broadly warned that reopening too soon could risk another wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

63% of poll respondents say if social distancing restrictions were eased, they would be uncomfortable going back to work without widespread testing for the virus first. Overall, the Quinnipiac survey finds 50% of Floridians approve of Gov. DeSantis' handling of the pandemic so far and that 41% disapprove.

Several Florida supervisors of elections are asking voters to cast their ballots by mail later this year. Florida’s primary election date is August 18, and the general election will be held November 3. There are several uncertainties about how the coronavirus could affect voting.

One issue is figuring out how to set up polling locations with proper social distancing during a presidential election year, when multi-page ballots and long voting lines are expected. Another concern is how fears surrounding COVID-19 will affect poll worker turnout.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said more than 60% of his poll workers are over 60 years old, in the age group most at risk from the virus.

Earley, who says one in seven Leon County residents usually vote by mail, wants people to ask for their ballots now, so his office is not overwhelmed with last-minute requests. “If that ramps up to a much greater percentage, especially if it’s later near the election, we just won’t be able to process all those requests in time,” said Earley. “So, we’re trying to get ahead of that now.”

The vote-by-mail push comes following last month’s presidential preference primary, when some polling locations in Florida were unable to open due to poll workers failing to show up.

Other locations that were open, had fewer workers than normal.

Longer ballots and larger voter turnout are expected in August and November, which would make that problem worse if it happens again.

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.