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Hospitalizations Decline In Orange County; DeSantis Says Process to Reopen State will be Slow; Schools Plan Virtual Graduations; Your Coronavirus Update for 4/27

Photo: Court Cook @courtmarie
Photo: Court Cook @courtmarie

Pandemic 'decelerates' in Orange County

Matthew Peddie, WMFE The coronavirus pandemic is ‘decelerating’ in Orange County according to Dr. Raul Pino, the director of the county health department.  Speaking at a press briefing Monday, he said 5.7% of the county’s tests are coming back positive and that number continues to decline.  And he said hospitalizations were in the single digits over the last two weeks. "In the last two weeks, we never had more than four hospitalizations in a day,” said Pino. Mobile testing continues throughout the county this week.

Dr. Pino said the health department is also working with the National Guard to test residents and staff at five long term care facilities in the county.  “We will test every employee and every resident- voluntarily, if they agree, that are residents of the facilities. So it’s more like a sentinel project. We would like to see where the pandemic is in our most vulnerable residents.” The county has tested some 23,600 residents over the last few weeks. Thirty people have died and 260 have been hospitalized. 

In person graduations unlikely- Superintendent Barbara Jenkins

Orange County school superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins said the district has plans for in person graduation ceremonies at High School football stadiums for later in July. "We have made it very clear to our students and families that that is probably not likely," said Jenkins. "However, we will have plans in place, just in case we are at that level of clearance toward the end of July." She said virtual graduations will be held in the first week of June.

County working on phased reopening plan

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the task force to reopen the county will meet daily this week. The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for  Tuesday at 2.30 p.m. "Our goal this week is to, by the end of Friday, have a more specific direction about when the various types of businesses may be able to reopen, and so they really should wait on that," said Demings. He said the task force would try to make sure its recommendations mesh with those of Gov. DeSantis' task force. The statewide 'safer at home' order is set to expire on April 30th.

TSA officers back at work after recovering from COVID-19

Greater Orlando Aviation Authority CEO Phil Brown said that seven of the 14 TSA officers who tested positive for coronavirus have returned to work after recovering from the virus.

He said two more officers who had tested positive were scheduled to return to work this week.

Coronavirus update: More than 5,000 people hospitalized with the virus in Florida

Danielle Prieur, WMFE 32,138 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the state of Florida according to figures released Monday night by the Florida Department of Health. 5,010 people have been hospitalized and 1,088 people have died. Orange County has 1,339 cases with 30 deaths and 260 hospitalizations. The county began testing at mobile sites throughout Orlando last week, in addition to the state run drive through testing available at the Orange County Convention Center. Sumter County, home of the Villages retirement community, has 173 cases, 12 deaths and 40 hospitalizations. In the United States, there are currently 985,374 cases of coronavirus and 55,906 deaths. Hover over the map for details about cases in other Florida counties.

DeSantis says Florida will reopen slowly, methodically

The Associated Press FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is saying that the state will reopen from the coronavirus economic shutdown in “baby steps” and that its regions could reopen at different times and rates. The governor said Monday that for most people, the reopening’s first phase will not be much different than what they are experiencing now with schools and nonessential businesses closed and people being encouraged to stay home. He is expected to begin laying out his plans this week as he reviews recommendations from a task force he appointed that looked at reopening various aspects of the economy.

Census says restart to field operations will be in phases

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The U.S. Census Bureau’s return to field operations for the 2020 national head count will take place in phases based on a region’s lockdown orders and the availability of protective gear against the new coronavirus.

That's what bureau officials told lawmakers last Friday. Census Bureau officials told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that there will be a phased start to the resumption of field operations on June 1.

The spreading virus forced the bureau in mid-March to halt field operations.

That included reaching out to college students in off-campus housing and dropping off paper questionnaires to households without traditional addresses.

NBA pushes plan to reopen facilities until May 8 at earliest

The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — The NBA has pushed back plans that would allow teams to reopen their practice facilities for at least one week.

The NBA had decided over the weekend to have teams open their gyms for voluntary player workouts on Friday, if local and state laws made such a move permissible.

But on Monday the league revised that potential opening date until May 8, at the earliest.

The May 8 date is far from firm, the NBA said, warning teams that it “may push this timing back if developments warrant.”

Public comment portal launches, feedback on unemployment system goes to Reopen Florida Task Force

Floridians can share their experience filing for unemployment with a statewide economic task force using a new online portal.  People can use the online form to leave a 4,000 word comment or upload documents related to failures and successes filing claims and receiving benefits. Feedback about the unemployment system will be sent to Governor Ron DeSantis’ Reopen Florida Task Force.  The group is charged with making recommendations for the state’s short and long-term economic recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on commencement plans for the Class of 2020

Joe Byrnes, WMFE Many Central Florida high schools hope they can at least hold backup graduations during the summer. Orange County is planning two graduations for each high school. First, a virtual one in early June. Then, if restrictions are lifted, an in-person ceremony in July. Other counties have announced backup dates: Volusia and Osceola have scheduled theirs for the second week in July. Seminole County plans a backup senior dance at each school on July 16th and commencement ceremonies the next day. Brevard County can fall back to the week of June 22nd or, if necessary, a month later. Polk County is surveying its senior class. The options are a virtual or a drive-through ceremony or backup dates in June or July. Sumter County will hold innovative drive-through ceremonies. Marion County is working on it, and Lake County promises they'll march as soon as it's safe. 

DeSantis: DEO processed 300K claims while system was down for weekend; roughly 25% of claimants paid

Ryan Dailey, WFSU Governor Ron DeSantis says roughly 300,000 unemployment claims were processed this weekend as the state Department of Economic Opportunity’s system was down. The agency announced last week that its CONNECT system, the subject of recent controversy, would be offline so work could be done to clear a portion of its massive claims backlog. DEO says since March 15, nearly 210,000 unique claimants have been paid benefits, about 25 percent of unique claims submitted. DeSantis told media today progress has been made in “leaps and bounds” compared to weeks ago.

"This is now, we will have done a total of over 500,000 payments now. To put that in perspective, all of last year, I think there were only some 300,000 claimants," DeSantis said. Since COVID-19-related economic restrictions were put in place mid-March, DEO reports about $200 million in unemployment assistance has been paid to Floridians. DeSantis recently put Department of Management Services head Jonathan Satter in charge of all things unemployment at DEO.

Adults with Alzheimer's and dementia to receive more than 300 robot therapy pets

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU More than 300 robot therapy pets are being delivered to adults with Alzheimer’s and related dementia.

The Florida Department of Elder Affairs released a statement saying that social isolation affects older adults more than other groups, and COVID-19 is requiring people with dementia and their caregivers to be alone for a long time. The agency is now teaming up with Ageless Innovation to give out robot pets to these people. The goal is to reduce stress on caretakers and enrich the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. The statement says that robot pets are an alternative to traditional pet therapy.

Florida felon voting rights case begins

Blaise Gainey, WFSU
The trial over whether a state law can require felons to pay back fines and fees before voting started Monday morning. Brennan Center for Justice attorney Sean Morales-Doyle says Florida’s law makes it harder for felons to vote.

"They didn’t just put a price tag on voting. The evidence will show they created a system where returning citizens can’t tell what the price is and where the price might be different from one county to another. The authors of Senate Bill 7066 knew that Florida lacked the data to know whether returning citizens are eligible to vote," Morales-Doyle said. Mohammed Jazil represents the state. He says the law aligns with what took place during the Supreme Court review of the 2018 amendment. “The Florida Supreme Court added and I quote, 'The language at issue read in context has an unambiguous ordinary meaning that voters would most likely understand to encompass obligations including LFO’s'," Jazil said. Plaintiffs hope Judge Robert Hinkle will allow felons who are unable to pay their fines and fees to vote. A federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision that found the state couldn’t make voting contingent on paying fines and fees.

Florida democrats want federal auditors to investigate state's unemployment system

Jenny Staletovich, WLRN 

Florida Democrats said today they’ll ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the state’s flawed unemployment system.

U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the federal government has sent money to Florida to address unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus. So, it needs to know why the system is not working.

"This is a system that has been broken for many years. That the governor had an opportunity over the last two years to fix proactively. And now we can see what happens when you leave something that is so wholly inadequate," Wasserman Schultz said.

Wasserman Schultz was joined by Representatives Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist and State Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez.

They also want the state’s $275 a week benefits increased and extended to 26 weeks.

Rodriguez says benefits are based on the previous year’s unemployment rate. He says that makes no sense amid the current shutdown.

"What we're asking for is, 'Hey governor just by executive order, why don’t you speed that up? Correct the design flaw'," Rodriguez said.

They say Florida has the largest unemployment backlog of any state in the country. It’s benefits are also among the lowest.

Antibody tests go to market largely unregulated, warns house subcommittee chair

Hannah Hagemann, NPR News

Coronavirus antibody tests have garnered attention from officials as a potential tool to evaluate people's immunity to the illness. But the majority of companies creating the tests have had little to no regulatory oversight, according to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.

Antibody tests, when accurate, can detect if someone has been exposed to the coronavirus in the past. More than 100 of these tests have been brought to market in the last several weeks, but the majority of them are not being tested by the Food and Drug Administration, said Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) in an interview on Sunday with NPR's Weekend Edition.

Krishnamoorthi said that federal officials have told his subcommittee that companies selling antibody tests can go one of two routes as they seek to bring their products to market.

"One is to basically get authorization from the FDA to sell them, and four companies have taken advantage of that. And then the other is not to get any authorization from the FDA and go ahead and sell them, and 107 have taken advantage of that."

In lieu of mandatory FDA authorization, the majority of antibody test-makers are "self-validating," according to Krishnamoorthi.

"Because of this kind of voluntary compliance type of regimen," he said, "there is absolutely no incentive for a junk test-maker to actually produce their results to the FDA."

He added: "A Wild West of unregulated tests are now proliferating, and our biggest concerns are that they are unreliable, inaccurate and in many cases making fraudulent claims about their testing results."

Even if test results are accurate, scientists still have many questions about what the presence of coronavirus antibodies means.

Some officials have suggested that people who have coronavirus antibodies in their blood would be safe from reinfection, or immune from the disease.

But scientists have urged skepticism about this idea. In a brief dated Friday, the World Health Organization cautioned, "There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection."

A major challenge in the global pandemic has been timely, accurate testing. Without population-wide testing, there are looming questions around how prevalent the disease really is.

That's where accurate, widespreadantibody testing could come in.

"Right now, only use a test that has been authorized by the FDA," Krishnamoorthi advised. "They've listed a handful of tests that have actually been authorized on their website."

Differing outcomes in Florida jail, prison hit by outbreak

The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Volusia County Branch Jail and the Tomoka Correctional Institution are practically neighbors, within two miles as the crow flies.

But when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the county jail and the state prison may as well be in different universes.

Tomoka Correctional is battling the worst outbreak of the coronavirus among state prisons: 82 inmates and 10 staff members or correctional officers at Tomoka have tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, the Volusia County Branch Jail has not had a single case of coronavirus among its staff, correctional officers or among its approximately 1,200 inmates.

DeSantis: parts of Florida 'on the other side' of outbreak

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that parts of the state are now “on the other side” of the coronavirus outbreak, and he will soon announce whether he will lift restrictions that have shuttered much of the state’s economy.

The governor said at a Sunday briefing in Orlando that the “hysteria” in the early weeks of the outbreak has not materialized in Florida, despite dire speculation there would be many more deaths than the 1,000 the state has recorded thus far.

As of Sunday, the state had more than 31,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Homeless families face high hurdles home-schooling their kids

Eilis O'Neill, NPR News

Eight-year-old Mariana Aceves is doing her math homework — subtraction by counting backward — while sitting on the bed she shares with her mom, Lorena Aceves.

They're sitting on the bed because they have nowhere else to go. They live in an 8-foot-by-12-foot room called a tiny house. It's part of Seattle's transitional housing, where people experiencing homelessness can live until they find a job and a place of their own.

There's room for the bed they share, a TV shelf and "a little tiny plastic dresser."

"And then all of our clothing and our food goes underneath our bed," Lorena Aceves says.

Tens of millions of kids are taking classes online at home right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. That's hard enough for most families. But if you're homeless and have no computer, sketchy Wi-Fi and no quiet place to study, it's even more difficult. That's the case for the 1.5 million schoolchildren currently experiencing homelessness across the United States.

When Seattle's schools closed in March, Aceves had to quit her new job because she couldn't find child care. She and her daughter have been holed up in their tiny house ever since.

"It's the boredom," Aceves says, "and me trying to reach out and find resources — work, a car, things like that — while also making sure that she's entertained."

Aceves and her daughter have a tiny amount of private space. Other homeless families have no privacy at all.

Sixteen-year-old Capelle Belij is living with his parents at a shelter, part of a network of family shelters in the Seattle area run by the nonprofit Mary's Place.

The Belijes share a room with two other families, divided only by curtains.

"My friends, like, come up to my bed space and ask if I want to play or something," Belij says. "If we had our own place, I could learn better."

Three-quarters of children and youth considered homeless live doubled-up with another family. That's the situation for the family of 17-year-old Michelle Aguilar. She's part of KUOW's youth reporting program called RadioActive.

"I can't really find a specific space where it's, like, quiet and calm and I can actually have Wi-Fi," Aguilar says.

Since Aguilar's shared bedroom doesn't have Wi-Fi, she ends up in the living room or kitchen with the rest of her family.

"And they just, like, continue their chaotic life of yelling and screaming and, like, playing music and listening to the TV and cooking," she says.

"Whenever I'm, like, in the environment of it being really loud," Aguilar says, "I tend to, like, read over and over and over and over the assignment."

"We're definitely very concerned with there being an achievement gap during this time," says Tisha Tallman, executive director of the National Center for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "The longer this goes, the more likely our children are to fall behind."

And, Tallman adds, schools provide much more than an education. Many homeless kids get two meals per day there, and they rely on it as a safe and stable place to be.

Back in her tiny house, Lorena Aceves is trying to keep her daughter's education on track with a strict schedule of math, reading and typing.

"Even though this is frustrating," Aceves says, "we are having this time together, and that's something typically that we don't have."

Aceves says it's good to feel close to her daughter during a time that she has to stay far away from nearly everyone else.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says the unemployment system was already broken

Wilkine Brutus, WLRN

Governor Ron Desantis says the statewide problems with unemployment claims -- were inevitable.

During a press conference in Orlando yesterday, Governor Desantis said the 77 million dollar flawed system was not designed for hundreds of thousands of claims at a moment's notice -- and it was bound to crash.

“This has been a tsunami that this system was not built for. And look, this system is a bad system and it was overpriced. I don't know why they paid so much money for [it]," DeSantis said.

"But I would also say, even if you built a perfect system six months ago, no one would sit down and say, 'Well, you should maybe plan on the economy just voluntarily ceasing'.”

Desantis says the state brought in 100 new servers to expand the filing capacity. Some people have now gone more than a month without benefits.

Golf to start in June, hockey will follow

Blaise Gainey, WFSU

While most sports talk in Florida has been focused on recent football acquisitions, the first sport to restart in the state will be golf.

Len Brown, the Executive Vice President for the Professional Golf Association, says they plan to resume play on June 8th but with major changes.

“Before they leave their home, we want to try get them tested and test results," Brown said.

"Once they arrive to the site we’re going to test them again and then the plan is to test them during the week as well. We’re trying to make their environment a safe zone.”

Brown says the plan depends on the availability of testing. 

The state’s professional hockey team, the Florida Panthers, plan on beginning the season in July and limiting the number of locations where games are played. 

The team will sell a limited amount of tickets so social distancing guidelines can be maintained.

Researchers at the Florida Aquarium have successfully bred a species of endangered coral in captivity for the first time

Delaney Brown, WUSF

Keri O’Neil says that when it comes to finding a proper mate, Ridge Cactus Corals have the odds stacked against them.

“If the closest other coral of the same species is miles and miles away, then it becomes more and more difficult for those corals to successfully reproduce," O'Neil said.

But O’Neil is a coral matchmaker. Since April 12, she’s witnessed two of these endangered corals give birth to 350 coral polyps. Now she and her team hope that once these polyps reach maturity they can reintroduce the species to Florida’s reefs.

“We're like Tinder and the Head Start program- we're the matchmakers. And then we're also the nursery that takes care of all the babies," O'Neil said.

The Ridge Cactus coral program is just one part of the Florida Aquarium’s larger coral conservation effort. Last August, the aquarium became the first organization to successfully spawn Atlantic Ocean coral in a laboratory environment.

Tampa mayor lightheartedly apologizes to NFL's Tom Brady

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is poking fun at last week's attention-grabbing incident involving NFL superstar Tom Brady.

Tampa didn’t exactly give Brady the best of welcomes when he was ejected from a downtown park while working out last Monday. The park was closed as part of city-wide efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In a letter posted on social media, the mayor apologized “for the miscommunication," saying her previous law enforcement background prompted her to "investigate the sighting of a G.O.A.T running wild in one of our beautiful city parks.”

Brady is considered by some as the NFL's  “greatest of all time.” Brady recently left the New England Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Click here to read more of WMFE’s reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

Danielle Prieur is WMFE's education reporter.
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