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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

Florida health officials reported 615 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Sunday, bringing the statewide total to 36,078 cases.  The latest update from the Florida Department of Health also reports 15 new verified COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,379 fatalities including 485 deaths in long term care facilities.

The number of hospitalizations due to the virus in Florida now stands at 6,035 patients.  Of the 428,744 tests that have been conducted in the state so far, 8.4% have been positive for the virus.

Here in Southwest Florida, Lee County continues to have the highest number of cases with 1,118 confirmed cases and 45 deaths.  Manatee County continues to lead in the number of deaths with 59 fatalities out of a total of 619 confirmed cases.

Collier County reports 640 cases and 21 deaths.  Sarasota has seen 377 cases and 47 deaths.  In Charlotte County there have been 249 reported cases and 25 deaths.  Hendry County reports 101 cases and four deaths and there have been six cases and one death in Glades County.

Retailers across Florida are looking forward to slowly reopening their businesses this week. Many shops that have been closed for more than a month will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity starting today, May 4.

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced restaurants and retail stores outside of Southeast Florida can again open for business, as part of the first phase of an economic-recovery effort.  Florida Retail Federation CEO Scott Shalley said the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the state’s 270,000 thousand stores, most of which are small businesses. Shalley said he feels large, essential retailers that have stayed open over the past month have shown that shopping can be done safely.

“We do have to shop in a way and set up in a way that ensures consumer confidence,” said Shalley. “And it’s on us now.  We encourage people to get out and shop, but do it responsibly. Follow the guidelines.”

Gov. DeSantis’ guidance 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 COVID-19 cases.

Allowing hospitals to resume performing elective surgeries is part of DeSantis’ initial phase of reopening starting today. DeSantis discussed "Phase One' of reopening the state during a visit to Halifax Health in Daytona Beach, Sunday. He pointed to the hospital's protocol and supply of personal protective equipment as to why hospitals can resume non-emergency surgeries.

“The hospitals, when they’re doing it, they’re certifying effectively that they do have space in the hospital, that if they did have an increase in COVID patients they could handle it; That they have adequate PPE.  They’re not going to run to the state for more PPE,” said DeSantis.

Halifax officials said other steps they've taken include making sure COVID-19 patients from long term care facilities test negative twice before being released. The hospital also created a separate wing to isolate COVID-19 patients and the staff treating them.  It was mid-March when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommended that hospitals across the country delay elective procedures.

While it allowed for hospitals to be prepared for potential COVID-19 outbreaks, it also led to lost hospital revenues and furloughs at some health care facilities.

Governor Ron DeSantis pledged to work to reopen hair and nail salons and barber shops during a roundtable in Orlando this past weekend. The personal grooming industries were left out of the first phase of the Governor's plan to reopen the state.

While meeting with several business owners in a barber shop, DeSantis acknowledged how essential personal grooming services are.  “I mean, I haven’t had a haircut in two months, not that that’s the important thing,” said DeSantis. “But I mean I’m coming on like a mullet almost with how much my hair’s grown.”

The salon owners pledged to require masks for employees and customers and that they would practice social distancing as much as possible. Customers would be required to wait in their cars until called for an appointment. DeSantis said those recommendations could help develop a set of best practices before reopening personal grooming shops.

A new COVID-19 testing sight opens today. May 4, in Lee County at Centurylink Sports Complex.  The stadium is the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins Major League Baseball team and is located at Ben C. Pratt/Six Mile Cypress Parkway in Fort Myers.  No doctor's note or appointment will be required.  Testing runs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Quest Diagonstics is setting up another testing site at the Walmart on Lee Boulevard in Lehigh Acres for health care workers and first responders.  That site will conduct tests by appointment only on weekdays between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.  Appointments can be made at myquestcovidtest.com.

Last month immigration rights groups sued the federal government to release migrants in South Florida detention centers because of the risks of infection from the new coronavirus. That’s what a U.S. judge is now ordering the Trump Administration to do.

In her ruling Thursday night, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to begin releasing hundreds of non-criminal migrant detainees.

Cooke called their continued detention “cruel and unusual punishment” since the migrants have either been infected or exposed to the new coronavirus. Most are locked up in the Krome Detention Center in Miami while others are at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach or the Glades County facility in Moore Haven.

“Once ICE came out and admitted that they were engaging in group cohorting of these inmates – or basically a group quarantining – we knew that immediate relief was necessary in this case,” says Miami immigration attorney Anthony Dominguez, of the Prada & Urizar firm, who is working with the University of Miami Law School’s Immigration Clinic. It’s one of the several groups, including Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, that sued ICE.

Cooke also ordered ICE to issue regular accountability reports on the progress of migrant detainee releases. ICE had said before the ruling that that would be too administratively cumbersome. The agency also argued Cooke didn’t have proper jurisdiction in the case.

Dominguez acknowledges the ruling will mean extra work for ICE but said, "since this pandemic started within our country and around the world, these are the life-or-death issues and reporting that the government should have already been doing.”

ICE said it will not yet comment on Judge Cooke's ruling, and in a statement insisted its "detained population nationwide has declined 20 percent since the beginning of March."

Gov. DeSantis said the state has gotten 200,000 coronavirus antibody tests that will be deployed in the coming days. Antibody tests are used to figure out if someone has had the coronavirus - they don't show if someone is currently infected. The governor wants to use the tests to get a better sense of how much the coronavirus has spread through the state.

“So you go in different parts of the state, create a scientifically representative sample, test for the antibodies, and then see how prevalent those are in various parts of the state,” said DeSantis.

He also plans to distribute some of the tests to hospitals so that healthcare workers can get tested and to drive-through testing sites for residents who want one. Still, the tests aren't perfect. Antibody tests can produce false results - and even if someone does have antibodies to the coronavirus, it's still not known if that offers any protection from getting sick again.

On Friday, an experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir was green-lighted by the FDA for use in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The emergency authorization came after a preliminary trial by the National Institutes of Health.

When given to patients with the Coronavirus as soon as they entered the hospital, remdesivir helped them recover about 31% faster than patients who received a placebo.

Locally, a trial is already under way using remdesivir in very ill COVID-19 patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Dr. Kirk Voelker is Medical Director of Clinical Research at the hospital.

“Now the advantage is that we’re giving it to every patient that’s on a breathing machine and qualifies.  It’s not a placebo-controlled trial, which means that all of our patients get the drug rather than half of them get the drug and half of them getting a placebo or saline,” said Dr. Voelker.

Nine patients have been treated so far. Voelker says it’s too early to tell if it works or not in late-stage COVID-19 patients.

According to the group Florida Realtors, housing prices aren’t expected to drop significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida Realtors Chief Economist, Brad O’Connor, said builders learned their lesson after the last recession and right now, the state has a housing shortage.

“A shorter supply of all things is econ 101 would be to actually put upward pressure in price,” said O’Connor. “So, let’s say the demand for housing falls, that—houses will still be scarce as they’re on the market right now so the prices won’t fall as much as they did last time when there were so many houses to choose from.”

O’Connor says the COVID-19 pandemic will have an impact on the housing market, but he doesn’t think it will be long-lasting.

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.
Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. He has reported on Latin America for almost 30 years - for Newsweek as its Mexico City bureau chief from 1990 to 1996, and for Time as its Latin America bureau chief in Mexico and Miami (where he also covered Florida and the U.S. Southeast) from 1996 to 2013.