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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 502 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 46,944 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 55 deaths, Tuesday, for a total of 2,052 fatalities. 938 of Florida's coronavirus-related deaths have been associated with long-term care facilities, accounting for 45.7% of all virus-related deaths in the state.

Nearly 8,500 people in total have been hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment in Florida.

Of the 717,162 cases that have been performed in the state so far, 6.5% have been positive for the virus. The overall percentage of positive test results in Florida has been trending downward.

In the Southwest Florida region encompassing Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Glades, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, the total number of confirmed cases now stands at 4,600 people including 331 deaths marking a single day increase of 107 cases and 12 deaths in the region.

Although Lee County reported no new deaths, yesterday, Lee continues to have the highest number of confirmed cases and fatalities in the Southwest Florida area.

All of the aforementioned numbers come from the Florida Department of Health's online coronavirus dashboard.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis says the woman overseeing the state’s COVID-19 dashboard was fired for insubordination.

In an emailed statement to reporters, administration spokeswoman Helen Ferre said Rebeka Jones was modifying the dashboard “without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her superiors.” DeSantis did not directly answer questions about Jones’ termination.

““Our dashboard has been recognized nationally,” said DeSantis. “It’s a heck of a tool, just as we’re very transparent with this.”

State Senator Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said she expects Jones to file a whistleblower lawsuit.

“She was a brave woman who refused to fudge the numbers and she was punished for it and that’s wrong,” said Sen. Cruz.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo is calling for an independent investigation into allegations that the state Department of Health improperly replaced Jones.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s only statewide elected Democrat, is also asking Florida Department of Health leadership to appear before a scheduled meeting of the governor and cabinet next week to discuss Jones’ removal.

Jones sent an email last week to subscribers of the COVID-19 email list saying that she had been reassigned from her position on May 5 and that she was no longer in charge of maintaining the website that she had created.

The timing comes amid ongoing questions about the accuracy of the state’s COVID-19 data reporting.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, a day before Jones lost oversight of the data, she refused to remove the records of symptomatic and positive cases before they were announced by the state.

The man overseeing the state’s unemployment system is advising Floridians not to hang up the phone when calling to inquire about their benefits. Jonathan Satter acknowledges the wait can be up to one hour 39 minutes.

“It’s really long and that’s why we’ve scaled up from about 40 people answering the phone to 6,000,” said Satter. “We have hundreds of people that are in different stages of training so that we can get those wait times down.”

In March, as the unemployment rate began to climb, some Floridians reported wait times up to several hours. Satter says the best time to call is in the late afternoon.

State Attorney General Ashley Moody is warning Floridians that some nursing homes and assisted living facilities may be seizing the federal stimulus payments of residents on Medicaid.

Moody’s office currently has an active investigation into several facilities in the state for taking federal CARES Act stimulus payments intended for residents and keeping the money for the business.

According to Moody, this is not allowed, as the stimulus funds are allocated as a tax credit, rather than a federal benefit. Moody is urging Floridians to ask eligible loved ones if they’ve received the benefits. If not, she says to check with the facility’s management to see if they are holding the money and to contact her office if they are.

““We do know of instances here in Florida where facilities are keeping these stimulus payments that are meant for seniors within their residences, and not giving it to them,” said Moody. “That is unacceptable. It won’t be tolerated.”

Anyone who feels an assisted living facility may be stealing a loved one’s money can contact the attorney general’s office at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

With gyms and other fitness facilities like martial arts and yoga studios reopening across Florida, the demand for cleaning supplies is intensifying, with hand sanitizer being one of things that can be hard to find.

All-Star Martial Arts in Jacksonville, which reopened Monday, is making its own sanitizer, based on recipes found online.

“You’ve got to get creative,” owner Ernie McKinney said. “If you don't have it, you’ve got to make it. Plus, it’s a good activity for the students.”

The studio is limiting group sizes to 15 students per class, with McKinney planning to offer virtual classes for the foreseeable future.

All-Star has also modified its curriculum. The studio is restricting student-to-student contact. Sparring isn’t allowed.

“Now you have to be kind of creative and visualize your opponent attacking you when you're going through your sequence of movements,” said McKinney.

McKinney said the studio keeps a stock of all supplies used regularly, but he’s also relied on parent donations.

The studio’s staff is cleaning all frequently touched areas, like door handles. They’ve also placed hand sanitizer stations around the studio.

All facilities that choose to reopen during Phase 1 are required to implement social distancing guidelines and have additional cleaning supplies ready for customers and staff.

While most facilities are ready to reopen and abide by the guidelines, they’re finding having enough cleaning supplies a common challenge

Dori Thomsen, who co-owns Soluna Yoga and Spa with her husband, said they began ordering supplies in late April.

“Just about everything is on backorder until June,” Thomsen said.

She is choosing not to reopen the business for now, instead continuing with virtual sessions.

“Our motto in this phase is slow and steady,” Thomsen said. “We just want to take things slow, and make sure we're finalizing our safety measures properly.”

While they plan their reopening, Thomsen and her staff are stocking up on supplies by selling off other equipment that isn’t considered sanitary to keep around.

“Block, bolsters, blankets, we love using yoga props in the practice,” Thomsen said. “But we're no longer able to use yoga props because that doesn't provide a very sanitary environment.”

Soluna invested in a UVC light in their ventilation system that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect the area of bacteria.

Meanwhile, Training for Warriors (TFW), a gym in Ponte Vedra Beach, is seeing an uptick in the desire for private gym sessions.

Owner Phil Squatrito said the gym is limiting groups sizes to 12 or less, and members need to sign up ahead of time.

Like the others, Squatrito is finding it challenging to keep up with the demand for cleaning supplies.

“Your hand sanitizers, your wipes, your Lysol sprays, that's like finding diamonds in the desert right now,” Squatrito said.

TFW has gotten help from people that go to the gym, along with other employees on the lookout for supplies.

At TFW, each person that comes in gets their own station with towels and spray bottles for cleaning. After every class, the staff cleans all of the equipment. A disinfecting company will do an even deeper cleaning a few times a month.

Squatrito said only 40-50% of the clients are coming compared to pre-pandemic attendance, but he expects more people will become comfortable with going back to the gym over the next couple of weeks. Many are still taking advantage of the virtual training TFW offers.

He said the gradual stream of business actually helps the gym out.

“We can make sure all these practices are in place, and we got a system and we got it down,” Squatrito said. “Now, when the bigger surge happens, we can still keep all those protocols and safety measures intact.”

Lee County Commissioners voted, Tuesday, to add an additional $7.5 million in federal CARES Act funding to a previously proposed program aimed at helping residents and businesses hurt financially by the coronavirus pandemic.

The additional money brings funding for the program to $57.5 million aimed at helping people with rent or mortgage payments, childcare costs and utility bills. In order to qualify, a family's household income would need to be $55,000 a year or less.

The News-Press reports an online application process is currently being developed and the county could begin taking applications as soon as next Tuesday, May 26. The county also plans to operate a call center to assist applicants.

Lee residents needing assistance paying childcare costs will need to apply through the LeeCares and United Way websites. In total Lee County has received $135 million through the federal CARES Act.

Lee Health is aiming to cut labor expenses due to financial losses from the coronavirus.

Admissions and surgery volumes have been down by as much as 55%. The News-Press reports, two voluntary programs for employees include an "exit" program with severance and a summer sabbatical.

Florida Power and Light officials say the utility is prepared for the upcoming hurricane season. FPL Senior Director of Emergency Preparedness, Tom Gwaltney, said the company has been focusing on how to protect workers from COVID-19 during emergency responses.

““We are reducing our staging site personnel and increasing the number of microsites so there’ll be a lot more sites to say grace over,” said Gwaltney.

“And with that it’s going to increase our logistical support that’ll be necessary. A site at one time used to be 1,500 to 2,000 workers, we will not have any site with more than 500 workers on it.”

Gwaltney said FPL will also provide coronavirus testing at command centers and will check workers' temperatures at all sites.