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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

State Health officials reported 497 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Thursday, bringing the statewide total to 33,690 cases.

The latest update from the Florida Department of Health includes 50 new COVID-19-related deaths, bring the statewide death toll to 1,268, including 423 fatalities associated with long-term care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The number of hospitalizations in Florida due to the coronavirus now stands at 5,589. Of the 382,966 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, 8.8% have been positive for the virus.

Lee County continues to have the highest number of coronavirus cases in Southwest Florida with 1,021 confirmed cases and 43 deaths.  Manatee County continues to lead in the number of deaths in the region with 55 fatalities out of 580 confirmed cases.

Collier County reports 596 cases and 19 deaths.  Sarasota County has seen 352 cases and 42 deaths.  There have been 236 cases of the virus and 19 deaths in Charlotte County.  Hendry County reports 83 cases and 3 deaths and there have been 6 confirmed cases in Glades County and one death. (1.15)

Restaurants and many retail stores outside of Southeast Florida can start reopening their doors Monday with limited occupancy, as part of the first phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ economic recovery effort from the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at the state capitol, Wednesday, DeSantis outlined what he described as a step-by-step plan that will allow restaurants outside of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to have outdoor seating and indoor occupancy of up to 25%.

The first phase, following guidance from the White House to governors, also will allow hospitals and other medical providers to conduct elective procedures.

However, movie theaters will remain closed, as will bars, gyms and hair salons. Visitors will also continue to be prevented from going to hospitals and nursing homes. While the governor says the state won’t issue fines, gatherings of 10 or more people will continue to be prohibited for now.

DeSantis did not give a firm timeline for moving into the next phases of reopening the economy, saying the second phase will depend on trends involving hospital occupancy and if there are surges or declines in cases.

“We also want public confidence,” said DeSantis. “One of the reasons we’re going to take a very slow and methodical approach is because we want to make sure we build as much confidence as possible with the general public.”

The first phase of reopening excludes southeast Florida, which has seen the biggest impacts from the virus.

Starting Sunday, May 3rd, the Florida National Guardwill activate a COVID-19 testing site in Immokalee.

Immokalee Division Director for Department of Health Collier, Mark Lemke, said people won’t need a medical referral to get tested.

“We will not turn anybody away who shows up to get a test, until we run out of tests,” Lemke said.

On Tuesday, Lemke said the local health department was given 1,000 tests by the state Division of Emergency Management  for the site.

“They want to see our burn rate for the first 1,000 [tests] and they will overnight more, we are trying to get them to just send us the other thousand now,” Lemke said.

Lemke said people will be tested on a first come, first serve basis.

“As we see how long it takes to get someone through the process, we’ll let the [Collier] Sheriff’s Office know so they can end that line when we feel that will take us up until either the end of the day or to the point when we are out of tests,” Lemke said.

County health officials said clients will be asked to provide their name, address, phone number and social security number, if they have one.

Information on how to access results will be available at the testing site in Spanish and Creole. Lemke says the department also wants to make that information available in Mam, a Mayan language.

“It gives them the information about the lab and if they don’t hear anything in five days, that they can call that number and get their results,” Lemke said.

Walk up and drive-through Covid-19 testing will be available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Sunday, May 3 through Tuesday, May 5 at the Collier DOH Immokalee branchlocation.

Public beaches in Collier County and in the cities of Naples and Marco Island opened, Thursday. Naples City Councilors voted unanimously to open parks and beach access points after Collier County commissioners approved a similar measure.

In the city of Naples, swimming and fishing are allowed, but there are some restrictions.  Showers, restrooms and water fountains are open at Loudermilk Park and the Naples Pier, but the pier itself remains closed, as will concessions there. City parks are open, but the Naples Daily News reports playgrounds, community centers and fitness stations remain closed.

Commissioners in Lee County reopened parks and beaches to the public, Wednesday, with some restrictions. The openings only apply to county-managed beaches.  Fort Myers Beach town beaches remain restricted, for now, to island residents for walking, jogging or biking between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.

Beaches in Manatee County will reopen Monday with some restrictions.  Manatee public beaches will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

The reopening only applies to county-owned beaches like Coquina beach and Manatee Public Beach.  The Herald Tribune reports restrooms will be open at those locations, but concessions will remain closed for now and parking will be limited to two-hour increments.

Unlike Sarasota County, which reopened beaches this past Monday, in Manatee County there will be no restrictions on bringing supplies such as beach chairs, coolers and blankets.  Charlotte County officials also reopened beaches, Monday, with no restrictions.

Antibody testing for coronavirus seems to be the next wave of disease management for COVID-19.

In general, if someone has antibodies present for a disease, it’s likely that person may have immunity against it. While health experts agree that it’s too early to call coronavirus antibody testing conclusive, local providers are working to get testing going as a step toward controlling the epidemic.

The state health department hasn’t gotten coronavirus antibody tests yet, as Administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Collier County, Stephanie Vick, told county commissioners this week.

“The Department of Health did order a batch and it got hung up in China and we never got them,” said Vick.

She added that although the state health department hasn't received antibody tests, private providers can purchase them.

The federal agency overseeing the Paycheck Protection Program will be reviewing loans of more than $2 million. Other COVID-19 relief loan programs may also be reviewed as well. This comes as larger chains are returning their loans after facing criticism for taking money meant for small businesses. Bill Herrle heads the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida.

“Shame on those people that abused it,” said Herrle. “We are very much encouraging the SBA to track down these abuses and exact penalties if appropriate.”

Herrle said he’s hoping auditors will ferret out larger businesses who are abusing the loan program as soon as possible.

Florida's price gouging hotline has now been contacted nearly 3,800 times related to inflated prices on essential commodities. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody activated the state price-gouging hotline on March 10, after Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency because of the coronavirus.

So far, the attorney general's office has issued 69 subpoenas as part of investigations into price gouging on high-demand items amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Floridians have received more than $275,000 in refunds.

Moody said the information gathered by her office was largely based on hundreds of tips provided by consumers. “When you combat issues of crime or deceit or fraud in communities, having the help of community members – asking them to help us is one of the biggest tools we have.  It is a team effort,” said Moody.

Items covered by Florida’s price-gouging law under the state of emergency include protective masks, sanitizing and disinfecting supplies, commercial cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.

Those who violate Florida’s price gouging law face penalties of $1,000 per violation, up to $25,000 per day.

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.