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Your Monday Update: National Outage Affects Some 911 Services, Pandemic Could Affect Election, What Writers Are Reading During Lockdown

Photo: Camilo Jimenez
Photo: Camilo Jimenez

National outage affects some 911 services in Central Florida

Danielle Prieur, WMFE 

A national carrier outage affecting T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint means some customers won't be able to call 911 in an emergency.

Local police and sheriff's departments in Central Florida are encouraging residents to text 9-1-1 or call the department's non-emergency number.

Orlando Police, Kissimmee Police, and the Seminole County Sheriff's Office have all been affected by the outage.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office says they have not been affected-residents should continue to call 9-1-1 if they need help.

Chaos in primary elections raises fears for November

Pam Fessler, NPR

Wisconsin voters had to wait in long lines to cast their ballots. Absentee ballots went missing in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. And last week, voters in Georgia and Nevada were frustrated by long lines and widespread confusion.

Recent primary elections held during the pandemic have exposed an overtaxed voting system and raised questions about how much can be fixed by November.

Everything seemed to come to a head in Georgia. Voters waited for hours, as confused poll workers struggled to operate new equipment. And some polling sites ran out of backup emergency ballots.

Many voters, like Fulton County resident Latrisha Hernandez, tried to vote by mail but never got a ballot. She went to the polls in person only to encounter more dysfunction.

"The system said I already voted and I had never voted," she said. "And they were trying to get the system reset, but they didn't have the password to the system so we had to sit to the side until they finally got a password to get it reset."

Still, Hernandez's two-hour ordeal paled in comparison to others in the county who had to wait past midnight to cast their ballots.

One problem in Georgia, as elsewhere, is that election officials decided to consolidate polling sites, expecting that most people would vote by mail because of the pandemic. On top of that, hundreds of poll workers pulled out at the last minute because of health concerns, so those who did show were overwhelmed. And there was little time to train any new recruits.

"In addition to a lot of voter confusion, there was a lot of poll worker confusion," Sara Mullen, associate director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said of her state's June 2 primary. She heard complaints from voters who said poll workers turned them away when they should have been allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Mullen said some of the confusion was understandable. The state was dealing with new election procedures and voting machines.
Read the full article here.

A long summer ahead: What writers are reading as the pandemic goes on

Mallory Yu, NPR

What are you reading during the pandemic? We've been asking that question to a range of writers and they've responded with suggestions for fantasy, poetry, new fiction, old fiction, web comics, fairy tales and more. You can find recommendations below from Ben Philippe, Jade Chang, Raina Telgemeier, Tess Taylor and Thomas Pierce — and we'll add more as the summer goes on.

Ben Philippe Recommends The 'Animorphs' Series

During the pandemic, Ben Phillipe, author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, has realized that all of his previous desert island lists (you know, the lists of books you'd take with you if you were stranded on a desert island) were "complete BS." Turns out, he's not rereading The Virgin Suicides or Dostoevsky, but rather the children's fantasy Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate — in its entirety.

"The Animorphs are actually an incredibly dark dystopia," he explains. An alien invasion of Earth is underway, and five kids must fight for their doomed planet as best they can. "Underneath it all, there is such a looming sense of despair," Phillipe says. "I don't think I ever sort of latched onto that darkness when I was, you know, 14, 15. But now I'm like: Oh, God, this is so bad."

Phillipe finds the kids' tenacity soothing right now. "Even though the world is so dark, these kids keep going on," he says. "They still have crushes. They still go to dances. They have family gatherings. ... They just have to keep pretending everything's fine. ... I think that that sort of element of pretending and going on is very appealing to me right now."

Read the full list of recommendations here.

France announces further reopening amid declining number of coronavirus cases

Scott Neuman, NPR

France's President Emmanuel Macron announced Sunday a further easing of restrictions imposed after the COVID-19 outbreak, beginning with the full reopening of cafes and restaurants and the lifting of bans on travel from European countries.

France, which has been among the countries in Europe hardest-hit by COVID-19, with nearly 30,000 deaths, has nonetheless seen its daily count of new cases fall dramatically since a peak in mid-April.

"The fight against the epidemic is not finished but I am happy about this first victory against the virus," Macron said in a televised address.

He said that mainland France, including Paris, would be classified as a "green zone" for the deadly virus. Only the overseas French territories of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean and French Guiana will remain on a higher "orange" alert level, he said.

Travel from other European countries will now be allowed with travel from outside Europe to resume on July 1, he said, outlining the government's plan.

The further easing is part of a gradual relaxation of restrictions in France that began with the May 11 end of a two-month stay-at-home order. Among other things, Macron's announcement means that cafes and restaurants can be fully reopened after they were allowed to resume business for outdoor seating only earlier this month. Earlier, officials had indicated that might have to wait another week.

Sunday's announcement also allows people to resume visiting family members in retirement homes.

From June 22, all nursery schools, primary schools and junior high schools will be open and attendance will be mandatory.

France expects the economy to contract by 11% this year. Macron said his government was pumping an "unprecedented" 500 billion euros ($563 billion) into the economy in the form of financial aid and relief payments to forestall layoffs and support key business sectors.

"With this epidemic, the global economy has come to a virtual standstill," he said. "Our first priority will be to rebuild an economy that is strong, ecological, sovereign and united."

According to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, the United Kingdom is the worst-hit country in Europe, with nearly 300,000 infections and just under 42,000 deaths. Spain has had some 240,000 cases and more than 41,000 deaths. Italy, which saw a huge number of coronavirus-related deaths beginning in March, has seen nearly 237,000 cases and more than 34,000 COVID-19 deaths. All four countries, including France, have seen significant declines in infections in recent weeks.

Texas calls in a strike force to try to slow coronavirus spread in nursing homes

John Burnett, NPR

Some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks have occurred at long-term care facilities that now account for more than one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in America. Some states have taken aggressive actions to slow the spread of the virus among elderly populations and workers in nursing homes. Texas formed a strike force to assess problems at its 1,222 nursing homes.

On a bright South Texas morning in the parking lot of a suburban nursing home, paramedics from the San Antonio Fire Department were setting up swabbing stations and donning periwinkle-blue protective gowns. They were part of the massive state intervention to stop infection from spreading in nursing homes. Municipal and Texas State Guard medics have fanned out to test more than 250,000 residents, as well as staff, for coronavirus.

"OK, guys, so we got 260 swabs we're gonna do here today. It's 200 staff and 60 residents. We got y'all divided up in your teams already," shouted Paramedic Lt. Travis Hopp. "Be safe, take care of each other, and stay clean."

Their work is critical. In Texas, 47% of the state's nearly 1,900 COVID-19 deaths have been tied to skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities — an even greater proportion than national COVID fatality figures.

"Right now we're focused on licensed nursing facilities. We've seen extremely high mortality rates and that's a very vulnerable population," said Eric Epley, executive director of Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, who is coordinating the statewide paramedic teams.

As the public health crisis that began in the winter enters the summer months, why is the virus still running rampant through nursing homes?

The fundamentals of infection control are well known by now: frequent hand-washing, wearing masks, social distancing, donning protective gear and disposing of it properly, and isolating sick people.

"Let me tell you, some of this stuff is really basic and I don't understand why they're not getting it," said Kevin Dinnin, president of BCFS. The nonprofit emergency provider of health and human services is part of the Texas Quick Reaction Force for nursing homes. BCFS medical teams have completely taken over operations at six Texas nursing homes where a third to a half of the population contracted COVID-19, and staffers were too afraid to come back to work.

Dinnin has a picture on his phone of a nurse's aide — without a mask — standing in the hallway of an East Texas facility and directly behind her is an elderly resident who is COVID positive.

What's alarming, he says, is that staffers are contracting the sickness, they don't know they have it, and they're likely infecting residents.

"And they're moving room to room to room with close patient contact," Dinnin continued. "Certainly, if they're not wearing any mask at all to protect others from them there's a good chance they're shedding the virus and they're exposing those high-risk patients to the virus."

His chief of operations, Todd Gates, has been working inside nursing home hot zones in Texas for weeks.

"They [nursing home administrators] are acting generally out of ignorance because they just don't know what they're doing is wrong," Gates says.

Dinnin said guidance on infection control from state and federal health care authorities "is too complex and it needs to be simpler and easier to understand."

The nursing home industry has generally blamed its coronavirus crisis on the early scarcity of masks and other protective equipment, and the lack of testing. Moreover, they say, aged residents are especially vulnerable, and no one saw this virulent disease coming.

But infection control has been a perennial problem well before 2020.

Read the full article here.

What Zebra Mussels can tell us about errors in coronavirus tests

Richard Harris, NPR

During the coronavirus pandemic, many scientists who usually have nothing to do with viruses or infectious disease are turning their attention to COVID-19. For example, one wildlife biologist is raising questions about the accuracy of tests that detect the coronavirus.

In normal times, Andrew Cohen focuses his attention on issues of ecology and conservation, as director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions.

In 2007, the state of California hired him to fight back the invasion of non-native mussels, which had been wreaking havoc on ecosystems in the eastern United States.

"We began getting reports after that of these mussels showing up all across the western U.S.," he says.

Scientists were using a clever technique to find them. They'd take a water sample and then look for the tiniest traces of genetic material from these mussels. They used a test called PCR (short for polymerase chain reaction), which vastly amplifies genetic material to look for mussel DNA. This is the same technology used to diagnose COVID-19.

The studies kept coming up with alarming results, showing signs of invasion by these pests. But Cohen grew suspicious.

"I began to realize that many of these — if not all of these — were false positives, especially when they started being reported in waters that had chemistry that would not allow the mussels to reproduce and establish themselves," he says.

Cohen wanted to understand why these tests were going awry, so he could spread the word to the labs that were using them. "I eventually turned to the medical literature to look at assessments that had been done of medical diagnostic labs that used PCR-based testing in humans."

Cohen discovered that false positives were actually fairly common. The best labs reported few if any, but other labs reported up to 8% of their positive results were false-positives. The average was around 2% false-positive.

Fast forward to March 2020. Cohen started thinking about this issue of false positives. He was skeptical of reports that people with absolutely no symptoms were nonetheless getting positive PCR test results for the coronavirus.

"I began wondering whether these asymptomatic carriers weren't in large part or in whole part the human counterparts of those false-positive results of quagga and zebra mussels in all those water bodies across the across the West," he says.

Read the full article here.

Hong Kong Disneyland will be second Disney theme park to reopen after Shanghai

Danielle Prieur, WMFE 

Hong Kong Disneyland will reopen on June 18, a little more than a month after Shanghai Disneyland opened its doors to the public.

It is only the second Disney theme park to reopen since parks were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement published on the Disney Parks blog on Sunday, Managing Director Stephanie Young said, "we will draw on the learnings from the recent reopening of Shanghai Disney Resort and Disney Springs at Walt Disney World."

"Similarly, we will also implement new and enhanced health and safety measures following the guidance of our local government and health care officials," Young said.

Young said these precautions include limited attendance, social distancing at restaurants, stores and in lines for rides, and increased cleaning.

Guests will be required to make reservations seven days ahead of their visit and all character experiences have been suspended. Ticket and hotel room cancellations are available.

Disney World in Orlando is scheduled to reopen July 11.

The Orlando Science Center is opening its doors to guests after closing back in March due to concerns over the coronavirus

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

The science center will open at a reduced capacity and with limited hours - and by reservation only. 

The center will close on Wednesdays for deep cleaning, otherwise it will operate under reduced hours. 

Guests are asked to purchase tickets online, wear a face mask and have their temperatures checked before entering. 

Certain exhibits and food service locations will remain closed. 

While Governor DeSantis’ order allows up to 50 percent capacity, the Orlando Science Center says it will operate at 25 percent occupancy. 

The Orlando Science Center reopened its summer camp earlier this month with similar safety precautions in place and plans to offer more virtual camps as an option moving forward. 

Report: 40,000 cruise ship workers still trapped at sea

The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — More than 40,000 cruise ship workers are still stuck at sea because of concerns about the coronavirus.

The Miami Herald reports that at least 42,000 workers remain trapped on cruise ships without paychecks.

Some are still suffering from COVID-19 three months after the industry shut down.

Cruise lines stopped sailing in mid-March after several high-profile outbreaks at sea.

More than 600 people fell ill aboard Carnival Corp.’s Diamond Princess while it was quarantined off the coast of Japan.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prohibited cruises in U.S. waters through July 24. Some cruise ship workers have started being repatriated to their home countries.

NASCAR allows 1,000 fans to return to the stands in Miami

Christianna Silva, NPR

On Sunday, up to 1,000 South Florida service members, first responders and family members who came to Homestead-Miami Speedway became the first fans to watch a NASCAR race from the stands since March.

The crowd at the rain-delayed Dixie Vodka 400 gathered after weeks of races without any spectators beyond essential staff, a guideline NASCAR followed in mid-May in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"It's huge," driver Tyler Reddick told the Palm Beach Post. "I'm used to seeing crowds, literally right there. We were racing, it just felt like we were going out there to run some practice or tests. So I'm really glad we're going to have some fans back."

Fans are undergoing health screenings before entering and are required to wear face masks and socially distance by six feet at all times, according to NASCAR.com.

"The race-day experience will be different, it's just different times, and fans will have to adjust [to] that," Daryl Wolfe, NASCAR's executive vice president and chief operations and sales officer, told the site. "We will have to adjust on how we're addressing these issues for fans. We think we have a very, very good plan in place — a very detailed plan — but make no mistake, I'm sure there will be some key learnings coming out of Homestead that then we will reapply and adjust for Talladaga."

Next Sunday, up to 5,000 fans will be allowed to attend the GEICO 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

"It is so dependent on the local communities, advice from medical experts, working directly with governors' offices," Wolfe said. "Candidly, frankly, in some states there is more flexibility than in other states. ​Having said that, we can probably be more aggressive with some of these numbers, but we're choosing not to. We want to start very small, learn and then adapt."

The return to the stands comes as both Florida and Alabama work to reopen their states, despite COVID-19 cases continuing to increase across the country.

Florida has had more than 73,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths; Alabama has had more than 25,000 cases and at least 773 deaths.

Health experts link rise in Arizona coronavirus cases to end of stay-at-home order

Will Stone, NPR

With new daily coronavirus cases rising in at least two dozen states, an explosion of new infections in Arizona is stretching some hospitals and alarming public health experts who link the surge in cases to the state's lifting of a stay-at-home order close to a month ago.

Arizona has emerged as one of the country's newest coronavirus hot spots, with the weekly average of daily cases nearly tripling from two weeks ago. The total number of people hospitalized is climbing, too.

Over the past week, Arizona has seen an average of more than 1,300 new COVID-19 cases each day.

After the state's largest hospital system warned about a shortage of ICU beds, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, pushed back on claims that the health care system could soon be overwhelmed.

"The entire time we've been focused on a possible worst case scenario with surge capacity for hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators," Ducey told reporters on Thursday. "Those are not needed or necessary right now."

While he acknowledged a spike in positive cases, Ducey said a second stay-at-home order was "not under discussion."

Read the full article here.

Virtual concert a fundraiser for idled bands

Tom Flanigan, WFSU
One of North Florida's hottest bands was back on stage over the weekend. But the performance of "Tallahassee Nights Live" was as much virtual as actual.

The happening was in part a fundraiser for the Tallahassee Live Music Community Charity Group headed by Alicia Kilman. "Tallahassee Nights Live is going to do a full concert for us and have some special, never-before seen debut," Kilman said. The Warrior on the River Club was the scene for the online streaming event, said group founder Darrius "Doc" Baker. "We've done a few live streams, but tonight is going to be special," Baker said. Special, said Music Director "C" Walden, because with the pandemic and political divisions raging, people can use music as an uplifting and unifying force. "It's something that can heal; it's something that can bring people together and we just want to be positive and do the right things in the community and do our part."

More than two dozen boats took part in a rally in Tampa Bay on Sunday to show their support for President Donald Trump

Susan Giles Wantuck, WUSF

Pleasure boats decked out with US flags and banners supporting the president rallied across Tampa Bay, passing points including the fishing pier at Ballast Point Park in South Tampa.

While others tried their luck at fishing, about a dozen Trump supporters there waved at the flotilla. Seafarers responded by honking their boat horns.

Supporters included an Army veteran carrying a large "Make America Great Again" flag and Jessie Meeker of Ohio. She brought her four children to watch after learning about the boat rally on Facebook.

"I support our country. I love our president. It's his birthday, so I thought it was an awesome thing to see."

This was the second boat rally for the president in Tampa Bay in recent weeks. Large public gatherings are limited because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.