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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 527 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, Wednesday, bringing the statewide total number of cases to 47,471 people.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 44 coronavirus-related deaths, Wednesday, bringing Florida's death toll to 2,096 fatalities. 968 of Florida's coronavirus deaths have been associated with long-term care facilities, representing 46.2% of all virus-related deaths in the state.

The total number of hospitalizations due to the virus in Florida now stands at 8,681 patients.

Of the 772,669 coronavirus tests that have been performed in Florida so far, 6.1% have been positive for the virus, continuing a downward trend in the rate of positive tests.

In the Southwest Florida region encompassing Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, state health officials reported 73 new cases of the virus and 11 new deaths for a total of 4,673 confirmed cases and 342 fatalities.

Despite not having any reported new deaths since Monday, Lee County continues to lead in the Southwest Florida region when it comes to the total number of cases and deaths with 1,542 confirmed cases of the virus and 89 deaths.

Health officials recorded seven new virus-related deaths, yesterday in Charlotte County and two new deaths each in Manatee and Sarasota Counties.

This data is based on information from the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard, whose former director, Rebekah Jones was ousted earlier this month and that’s raised questions about the transparency and integrity of data provided on the site.

A nationwide analysis of COVID-19 data released this week shows broad discrepancies between what some states are reporting about testing for the novel coronavirus to the public, and what is being reported by the CDC. The analysis lists Florida as “the most extreme case” of testing discrepancies between what the state and the federal government are reporting.

Asked about the discrepancy, the CDC told WLRN in Miami that it is lumping together antibody tests along with tests for active COVID-19 infections, in an apparent conflation of its own antibody testing definitions.

“It’s apples to oranges. The two tests measure two different things,” said Mary Jo Trepka, a professor of epidemiology at Florida International University. “It’s more informative to look at the numbers of those two tests separately.”

Antibodies, or serology, tests are used to measure whether someone might have had contact with COVID-19 in the past. Diagnostic — or PCR — testing measures cases of acute, current infections. The CDC’s guidelines specify that antibody tests are adequate for surveillance and research, but not for individual use.

The antibodies tests are not designed “to test people who want to know if they have been previously infected,” according to the CDC website.

“If they are reporting the numbers of real time PCR tests, plus the number of serology tests together, it’s hard to interpret and hard to know how many people are actually screened for an acute infection,” said Trepka.

The CDC only recently released a dashboard to track COVID-19 cases and testing on a national level. The dashboard makes no mention of antibody tests being included.

Even if traces of COVID-19 are found in an antibody test, those results are not logged by states or by the CDC as “positive” results for an acute infection. Grouping the two together could make it seem that a smaller percentage of people who have received tests are positive with COVID-19, since antibody tests do not measure acute infections at all.

Up until last week, data reported by the CDC explicitly did not include antibody tests, as it explained on its archived website.

But in recent days, that page was changed from tracking "Viral Testing" to simply "Testing." Antibody tests are now included in the data. The percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 has dropped two percentage points since then.

Up until the release of the CDC dashboard, the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by The Atlantic magazine, was a primary national database for tracking COVID-19 across the nation. The project pulls together data from every corner of the nation into a single clearinghouse, and has been so successful that the White House has cited it in official reports.

When the CDC’s dashboard was released, the COVID Tracking Project, made up of journalists and dozens of volunteers, wrote a white paper analysis, comparing what states were reporting versus what the CDC was reporting.

Several states are listed in the analysis as having “major” discrepancies when it comes to testing data. Those include Florida, California, Texas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Indiana, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Maryland. For many of these states, the CDC reports far fewer tests than what the state is reporting.

In absolute case numbers, the largest discrepancy came from Florida. But in terms of percentage, Indiana is the biggest deviance, with the CDC reporting 58 percent more tests than the state.

The COVID Tracking Project’s analysis found that, at the time, Florida reported the completion of 691,653 COVID-19 tests. Meanwhile, the federal government listed Florida as having conducted 919,109 tests, for a difference of a 227,456 tests.

That amounted to a 33 percent discrepancy between state and federal sources.

“We thought: Wow, this is actually quite a problem. Because to date, Florida has actually done a pretty good job reporting data about the outbreak, at least from what we could see,” said Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a manager of the COVID Tracking Project. “Florida is still the only state that provides a line list of every case, which is so far beyond what other states have done.”

If anything, researchers expected the state’s testing numbers to be higher than numbers reported by the federal government, because of delays in reporting data.

In an email, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said another thing that makes federal numbers higher than state numbers is that the CDC tracks the total amount of tests conducted, rather than the number of people tested, as Florida currently does.

Nordlund added that antibody testing is being tracked by the CDC because “it can tell us who previously had the virus.”

“The data in the COVID tracker on testing is meant to capture all testing that is being done,” she said.

She wrote that the "CDC is working to do an in-depth look at the testing differences with several other states."

The League of Women Voters of Florida, is pressing Gov. Ron DeSantis to give local elections officials more leeway. The Florida Supervisors of Elections Association sent a letter in April asking for changes. The administration has not responded. League President Patricia Brigham led a conference call Wednesday to urge Gov. DeSantis to act.

“On May 13, a second letter was sent by the Supervisors of Election Association reminding the governor of these requests, while additionally pointing out that Florida was behind other states in securing CARES Act money for the elections,” said Brigham.

Florida’s Secretary of State is asking for $20 million from the federal government to spend on election safety in relation to COVID-19. The Supervisors are asking the state for flexibility on voting sites, extending early voting days and an extension on vote-by-mail deadlines. This comes in the run-up to the August primaries and the November general election.

Economists with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have completed their first round of collecting surveys from businesses around the state. The team collected surveys from businesses in the agriculture and aquaculture industries from mid-April to May 15.

Researcher John Lai focused on the agricultural industry. Of 729 total responses from agricultural businesses, about half were small businesses. The majority reported that they were open, and operating in some capacity.

“16 percent report that the coronavirus situation hadn’t begun to impact their agricultural operation yet,” Lai said on a conference call to share early findings Tuesday. “But, for those whose operations have felt impacts, 20 percent of respondents reported impacts over the course of about one to one and a half months. And another 11 percent felt impacts for a little bit longer – two to two and a half months, so far.”

Of the agricultural businesses that reported being closed, Lai explained 93 percent say they expect to reopen at some point in the future.

“Some of the top reasons for shutting down are also shown here. 29 percent reported shutting down due to local or municipal mandates. And 27 percent reported they shut down because their operation was unable to find customers or sell products,” Lai said.

Florida farmers collectively grow more than 200 agricultural commodities. The UF/IFAS study found average sales revenue loss across all commodity groups ranged from 18 to 46 percent, compared to the year before.

The University’s team of researchers say more surveys will be conducted going forward.

Another new survey shows one out of four people in the state have had their work hours cut because of the pandemic. And nearly 18 percent have been laid off from work.

The Sunshine State Surveyof 600 people was done by Nielsen and the University of South Florida. USF assistant professor Joshua Scacco says six out of 10 respondents said they are concerned about the effect the economic shutdown is having on their finances.

"We're talking about widespread economic concern, anxiety and disruption from this," he said. "You're seeing across the board, from individuals who are still employed to individuals who are now unemployed, economic disruption because of the novel coronavirus.

"What we're seeing is even among individuals who have not faced a furlough, a cut in their hours and/or layoffs, that we're also seeing disruptions to the types of work that still-employed individuals are also doing," Scacco said. "It's a widespread disruption in impacts to the ways in which Floridians are working right now."

Scacco says the racial divide is vividly illustrated in the survey.

African-Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to have their hours cut and have filed for unemployment; and Hispanics have more than twice the average rate of being laid off and taking a financial hit.

"So, what we're seeing is a perfect storm related to the systemic inequities that have been in place for minority communities in Florida and across the United States, that's impacting health and it's impacting work and life right now," Scacco said.

Among the findings of the USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey:

Florida households have been hard hit by the economic slowdown. Two-thirds of individuals surveyed indicate at least some level of income loss or work disruption. More than a quarter of households (26.6%) have had their hours cut at work since the start of the pandemic, while 17.9% have experienced a temporary furlough, 13.4% have had their pay/wages cut and 11.7% have had a member of the household laid off.

Economic anxiety is high among Floridians. More than 60% of Floridians reported that they are concerned about their ability to meet their financial obligations over the next three months as a result of the COVID-19 situation.

Many were caught off guard by the pandemic. A third of survey respondents (33.8%) indicated that they were not financially prepared for this situation.

Minority communities facing disproportionate impacts. African Americans are significantly more likely than whites to have had their hours cut (40.4% vs. 23.2%), had their pay cut (21.2% vs. 11.4%), been laid off (18.2% vs. 10.1%) and filed for unemployment (26.3% vs. 13.1%). Hispanics were twice as likely to report being laid off than non-Hispanics (18.4% vs. 9.4%). Both African Americans and Hispanics were significantly more likely to express concerns about their ability to meet their financial obligations over the next three months.

Low-income Floridians facing brunt of economic downturn. Those in the lowest income brackets are significantly more likely to have been laid off, while also being significantly less likely to report being financially prepared for the situation.

Floridians have experienced significant work-life transitions. Approximately one-third of Florida households have seen at least one member begin working from home either full-time (22.6%) or part-time (9.6%). Higher-income respondents were significantly more likely to report that they have begun working from home.

Floridians are staying connected in new ways. A majority of respondents (50.5%) reported that they are videoconferencing more frequently than before the pandemic, while 46.8% are talking on the phone more frequently and 42.2% are using social media more often.

The survey of 600 Floridians was fielded April 15-24, 2020, and the results are reported with a confidence level of 95% and a margin of error +/-4%.

Vice President Mike Pence is describing Florida as a national leader as across the country states are taking gradual steps toward reopening their economies.

He met Wednesday in Orlando with tourism and hospitality leaders about restarting Florida’s lifeblood industry.

The vice president struck an assured tone as he pointed to data trends that he said show the coronavirus is easing its grip on the quarantine-weary country.

“I’m more confident than ever that sooner than most people think we’re going to open up again and put America back to work.”

He heard from Gov. Ron DeSantis and representatives from all of Central Florida’s major theme parks, who said they are ready but acknowledged reopening fully will take time.

One representative from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said of some 1.5 million hospitality workers, nearly 1 million have been laid off.

Meanwhile DeSantis said evidence showing the coronavirus does not spread as well outdoors means its time to consider fully reopening theme parks.

DeSantis cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in saying new evidence also shows the virus also does not spread as easily in water.

“I think there’s going to be some people going down the slide at Universal and the Disney Parks and some of these other ones hopefully very soon.”

Walt Disney World is planning to reopen the rest of Disney Springs next week.

Disney’s George Kalogridis made the statement during the meeting that came on the same day some shops and restaurants in Disney Springs reopened.

Officials in Sarasota and Manatee Counties are hoping to bring back short-term vacation rentals by the Memorial Day weekend.

Gov. DeSantis has lifted restrictions on short-term vacation rentals as part of the state's ongoing re-opening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, but counties must submit plans to the state on how they plan to do so while still mitigating against the spread of the virus.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports, Sarasota County officials submitted those plans to the state Monday and Manatee County officials submitted their plans on Tuesday.

Eight other counties in Florida have already had their short-term vacation rental plans approved. Visit Sarasota County president Virginia Haley says vacation rentals account for just under half of all bed tax revenue collected by the county.

If a pandemic wasn’t enough to worry about, now hurricane season is approaching too. Lee County Director of Public Safety for Emergency Management Lee Mayfield wants to remind people that despite the presence of COVID-19 in our community, it is time to prepare for the Atlantic Storm season, which officially starts June 1. Mayfield says much of that preparation is the same as it would be any other year.

“Having that family hurricane plan; Talk through what you would do if you were ordered to

Evacuate; Have your hurricane supply kit. Download our apps, AlertLee and LeePrepares,” said Mayfield.

Although the county does plan to have shelters open for evacuation, due to the coronavirus this year, they encourage people to look for alternative housing.

“We want to reinforce that if you are ordered to evacuate, we want you to stay with a friend or

family, or hotel outside the evacuation zone, and really come to our hurricane shelters if you have no other options,” advised Mayfield.

“One thing we are reinforcing this year is, if you’re not in a storm surge evacuation zone, or you live in a well-built home, you can and should consider staying at home for the next hurricane.”

For more information, see the hurricane preparation guide at leegov.com.

Cape Coral officials have cancelled the city's Red, White and Boom Independence Day fireworks and other festivities amid the coronavirus pandemic. The News-Press reports, instead, Parks and Recreation Department staff are tentatively planning to reschedule the fireworks display on September 5 to coincide with Cape Coral's 50th anniversary as an incorporated city and the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The city's July 4th fireworks display near the Cape Coral Bridge typically draws an estimated 30,000 people.

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.
Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.
Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.
Danny Rivero
Amy Green
Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.