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Your Friday Update: Demings Submits Letters in Support of Universal, Smaller Parks Reopening, Donate Blood, Get PPE in Orange County, Free Food Delivery in Downtown Orlando

Photo: Luann Hunt

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Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings submits letters endorsing Universal, smaller parks’ plans to reopen

Danielle Prieur, WMFE

The Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force approved Universal and twelve smaller theme parks’ plans for reopening at a meeting on Thursday.

Now Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings says he’s given these same parks his endorsement in the form of letters he sent Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday night.

Those parks include:

  • Universal Orlando Resort
  • Fun Spot of Florida, Inc.
  • Gatorland
  • I-Drive Thrill Park LLC (Magical Midway Family Fun Center)
  • ICON Park Orlando
  • K1 Speed Orlando
  • Nona Adventure Park, LLC
  • Orlando Slingshot, LLC
  • Orlando Starflyer
  • Wonderworks of Orlando
  • Aloma Bowl
  • Boardwalk Bowl
  • Andretti’s Indoor Karting and Gaming

All the parks need now is for Gov. Ron DeSantis to give his approval before they can reopen. Entertainment venues throughout Orlando closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a press conference on Friday, Demings said, “The governor’s office is in direct conversations with these attractions about reopening.”

“It has been a long process, however, but I want to thank the citizens who volunteered their time to be participants on our Economic Recovery Task Force and for helping us get to this point.”

So far only Legoland in Orlando has gotten the approval of all three to re-open on June 1.

Orange County has distributed millions of face masks, thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer to small businesses

Danielle Prieur, WMFE

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings says the “PPE for Small Biz Initiative” has passed out 2.2 million face masks and 280,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to 15,000 small businesses. 

Demings says the county has also revamped its Project Leave Behind program – which usually distributes NARCAN or naloxone during and after first responder visits – to include face masks and hand sanitizer.

He says Orange County Fire Rescue has handed out 100,000 masks and 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer every week during the pandemic. 

But the distribution didn’t stop there. It also included nonprofits like Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida that got 80,000 face masks and 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for volunteers.

And in an attempt to get more residents to donate blood, Demings says 10,000 face masks and 10,000 bottles of hand sanitzer have been distributed to OneBlood for donors.

“If you donate blood, you can get a face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer,” Demings said.

Demings says the county plans on dropping off 50,000 masks to the Orange County courthouse for jurors before that institution reopens.

City of Orlando supports local hospitality industry through partnership with Uber Eats

Danielle Prieur, WMFE

First there were #407Days. Now there’s Order Up Downtown.

The campaign which seeks to encourage more people to support restaurants in Orlando is the result of a partnership between the City of Orlando’s Downtown Development Board and Uber Eats.

Mayor Buddy Dyer says starting this Monday on Memorial Day residents will be able to order food from a number of establishments and then get it delivered for free with Uber Eats.

“The program will waive all delivery fees and provide ten dollars off first time orders as part of the program,” Dyer says.

Residents who sign up for the Uber Eats Pass which includes free delivery and 5 percent off all orders, will get an extra month of the service for free.

Uber Eats will also waive activation fees for restaurants signing up with the program for the first time. The program will run through June 30.

Dyer encouraged residents to wear face masks and continue to practice social distancing as they went out to restaurants in the city over the Memorial Day weekend.

He said these practices could help save the lives of family and friends, along with complete strangers.

Miami-Dade sets target date for reopening beaches

Daniel Rivero, WLRN

The Miami Beach Commission unanimously voted Friday to reopen its beaches starting on June 1.

But that decision depends on whether the rest of Miami-Dade County agrees.

Michael Gongora is a commissioner for the city.

Whatever we do, I wanna make sure everybody else is doing so that we don’t become the one spot in the county that’s the only one that’s open. If we say June 1st, and they say June 1st, then I’m all about it, let’s do it,” Gongora said.

The fear is that if only one stretch of sand opens up, the beaches will become overcrowded.

After the vote, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced that he spoke to all coastal cities in the county, and that they’re all on board for reopening beaches and hotels on that day. Plans for the reopening are being finalized over the weekend.

Broward County is working on a potential plan to reopen its beaches next Tuesday, but those plans have not been finalized.

Emergency officials look to classrooms as a solution for social distancing in a hurricane shelter

Regan McCarthy, WFSU

As hurricane season nears, emergency management officials are looking for creative ways to protect people during storms, while keeping coronavirus mitigation in place.

In Miami-Dade County Emergency Management Director Frank Rollason says officials are increasing the number of shelters they plan to offer and are working with the school district to open classrooms within the school buildings they use as shelters.

“So we’ll have more rooms, more open spaces where we can put families together in these rooms, rather than being in the congregate areas,” Rollason said.

Rollason says those rooms will help keep people in smaller groups. And he says it will let officials isolate people who have COVID-19 symptoms.

He says some officials are considering screening people and taking temperatures before letting them into shelters, but he emphasizes, nobody will be turned away.

The impact of COVID-19 on minorities

Blaise Gainey, WFSU

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans make up 22 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in Florida, while only representing 18 percent of the population.

An analysis done by scholars from Yale reveals Latinos are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus as white people.

Tallahassee Democratic Representative Ramon Alexander recently posted a list of reasons on Facebook for why African-Americans are dying at alarming rates.

“Right here in Leon County 51% of the COVID-19 cases are African American which is going to directly correlate to the death rate as we move forward,” Alexander said.

He says it’s because of how America is designed and raises the issue of systemic racism.

“When you look at every facet of our country from access to high quality healthcare, access to education, access to home ownership across the board there have been significant challenges for communities of color. Because of systems designed for them to fail,” Alexander said.

Other minorities also suffer from similar problems. Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says Hispanic communities are suffering immensely.

“Here in Orange County for example we’ve seen that while 32% of our residents in Orange are Hispanic, they represent 37% of COVID deaths in Orange. In Osceola it’s worse where Hispanics represent 55% of the population but they’ve accounted for 67% of COVID deaths,” Guillermo Smith said.

Guillermo Smith says one simple thing that can fix the issue is closing the language gap.

“Spanish language communication is very important. Though many if not most Hispanic residents in Central Florida and throughout the state speak English it’s many who don’t and language access is a major problem,” Guillermo Smith said.

He says another reason the Hispanic community is at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 is because of their living conditions and jobs.

“You look at the fact that they are frontline essential workers, you look at the fact that they have underlying medical issues, that they’re exposed to people at home, that language access is an issue. There are things that we can do to improve on all of those fronts,” Guillermo Smith said.

Smith adds that a lot of times the jobs they hold don’t often offer paid sick leave. Which leaves a worker to decide whether to miss out on making money and stay home sick, or go out and make money while sick. He says since the pandemic started some companies have taken notice and extended paid sick leave, but he says more is still needed.

“Also even expanding Medicaid in the state of Florida. There are so many folks who are now newly uninsured because of the fact they lost their job and along with it their health insurance. So it’s a moral imperative for our state to expand Medicaid,” Guillermo Smith said.

Dean of Allied Health at Florida A&M University Dr. Cynthia Harris says COVID-19 has provided somewhat of a magnifying glass on issues that were already prevalent.

“When you have pandemics such as this as I think Dr. Fauci talked about, a shining light on some historical, societal issues that transcend the health issues itself,” Harris said.

Harris says the problems impacting minority communities make it more difficult to simply follow social distancing guidelines.

“These populations tend to live often times as multi-generational households, grandmother lives in many of these families and other family members. And so you know again it is hard to social distance when you have factors such as that,” Harris said.

And she notes minorities, especially African Americans, often don’t have a great trust in the medical system.

“Some of the unethical medical practices that have been done on African Americans for instance over the years there’s a distrust of the healthcare system. All of us are familiar with Tuskegee and that is only just one of several instances,” Harris said.

Harris says the only way to truly fix the problems is to take a broader look at the society in which they exist.

“You cannot simply just address a health condition without also addressing concurrently all of the societal issues what we call the social detriments of health, that have contributed to the disparities that we see in reference to COVID-19,” Harris said.

As the state continues on its path toward full reopening, Harris, Alexander and Guillermo Smith say the state should pay close attention to service areas, transportation and hospitality fields, where more minorities are employed.

‘It’s going to be much more costly’: An inside look at how one gym is reopening in ‘full phase one’

Ryan Dailey, WFSU

Gyms in Florida have now reopened, after close to two months of closures due to COVID-19.

Len Harvey, a Tallahassee native, is director of Premier Fitness in Tallahassee. He’s worked at the gym all 20 years it’s been in business, and has been in the fitness industry even longer.

“I started in the gym business in 1981, I was training young athletes,” Harvey said.

Nearly 40 years in the profession and the extended closure his business has endured is something Harvey has never seen anything close to before.

“First time ever, anything like this. I mean, the closest thing we’ve had to this is a hurricane, you know, or some type of storm that shut the power down and shut down the roads – and we’ve been closed for maybe five days. But never two full months,” Harvey said.

Governor Ron DeSantis ordered all gyms closed in March, in an attempt to stave off the spread of COVID-19. Harvey says he saw the move coming, and actually closed up a day before the order came down.

“So we just decided to go ahead. And our part was to try to help cut down on this virus, and you know, we have a lot of people in close proximity that are sweating, and possibly getting it on each other,” Harvey said.

The gym froze membership fees – electing not to charge members while its doors were closed. Most customers kept their memberships, and even now that the gym’s reopened, Harvey says some will keep their account frozen.

“Most people have hung on, but we froze them, we didn’t bill them during those two months. And we’ll have maybe 20 percent that we’ll freeze for another two months, is my guess,” Harvey said.

When DeSantis announced the state was going to “Full Phase One” May 14, which allowed gyms to operate at 50 percent indoor capacity, Harvey felt relief.

“Well, I think I was glad, and I thought we could be safe, as long as we social distanced,” Harvey said.

And, he explained, implement a strict cleaning regimen throughout the day – like clockwork.

“We run the club for an hour and a half, shut it down for a 30-minute cleaning. And put cleaning disinfectant on every machine, and shut down some things – like the sauna and steam room, and a few other things,” Harvey said.

Other things like an aerobics room, which has yellow caution tape marking an “X” on its doors, for the time being. But all that cleaning, and the supplies it takes to do it, comes at a cost.

“Between having the disinfectant bottles that you see on every other machine there, there’s about 200 of those, plus the disinfectant. And then we have antibacterial wet wipes here as well. So, we’re going through thousands of those wet wipes and towels,” Harvey said.

Now, the equipment is spread out – some machines have been moved to the wood basketball court to allow for more space. In other areas of the gym, caution tape is on every other elliptical machine and exercise bike to maintain social distancing between those doing cardio.

“Well we require that they bring a towel, right now. And, we strongly recommend that they wear a mask. But, as you can see by looking around – some do, and some don’t,” Harvey said.

There are plenty of guidelines to go around, and Harvey says Premier is following a combination from several sources.

“It’s a mixture. I mean, some of it’s been by the CDC, some of it’s been through the State of Florida, though the Ag Department,” Harvey said.

Before his gym and all others in the state were shuttered in March, Harvey says membership at Premier was at its highest point – near 10,000 people.

“I think we were headed into one of our better years, there. But we’ve hovered at mid-to-high 9’s, low 10’s,” Harvey said.

On Thursday mid-morning, Harvey said Premier was running at about 30 percent capacity.

“We normally run 2,000 people through a day, we’re running 600 now,” Harvey said.”

Harvey, an industry veteran, expects things to return to normal – he just doesn’t know when.

“I expect to see it move slowly up, over the next couple months, given the state of Florida and Tallahassee, Leon County doesn’t have any major issues with the virus. I think if Tallahassee, Leon County has some major issues, then it could impact our business as well as others,” Harvey said.

A lab accused of mishandling 35,000 COVID-19 tests is defending its record

Abe Aboraya, WMFE

Last week, AdventHealth announced that it had canceled its contract with an unnamed lab, calling its results unreliable. 

That lab was MicroGen DX.

In an interview with WMFE, CEO Rick Martin says the lab developed a backlog because of supply issues and problems with the hospital’s electronic medical record system.

“Advent had come in and seen that we had samples at room temperature that were in there for two or three days and made an assumption that the sample was no longer viable because it was at room temperature for two days,” Martin said.

Martin says the company has internal data showing test samples are still accurate when samples are left at room temperature for 72 hours.

MicroGen says it is still processing about 1,000 tests per day from other sources across the country. AdventHealth declined to comment beyond the statement it released last weekend.

AAA expects record low Memorial Day travel

Tom Urban, WLRN

For the first time in 20 years, AAA is not issuing an official Memorial Day travel forecast.

However, the auto club expects coronavirus fears will lead to a record number of people staying home for the unofficial start of summer.

Memorial Day 2009, which fell in the middle of the Great Recession, currently holds the record for the lowest number of holiday travelers at 31 million nationwide.

By contrast, 43 million Americans were on the road for Memorial Day last year.

AAA spokesman W. D. Williams expects most Floridians to stay close to home all weekend.

“We see short-term day trips for Floridians this weekend. We don’t see overnight trips. We don’t see long distance trips. People will be staying within an hour or a couple of hours of their home, something they can go to and enjoy during the day and then be back home by nighttime,” Williams said.

For those who are driving, gas prices are actually increasing as coronavirus-related restrictions begin to ease.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Florida is now one dollar and 88 cents, up 11 cents from a week ago.

DeSantis lifts restrictions on Florida youth activities

Sky Lebron, WJCT

Governor Ron DeSantis is lifting all restrictions on youth activities in Florida, opening the door for summer and sports camps.

DeSantis made the announcement at a basketball gym in Jacksonville on Friday.

“I think that a lot of parents are going to be interested in being able to have their kids be involved in activities, but at the same time, this is a parent’s decision. No parent is required to have their kid – if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, then don’t do it, and that’s fine. I think the parents are in the best places to make those decisions,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis says local governments will be free to create extra restrictions and guidelines for summer sports camps.

Asked about the mysterious COVID-19 – linked illness that has hospitalized children, DeSantis said parents should consider the risk when bringing kids back to camps, but that the illness — called MISC is “extremely rare”.

DeSantis also pointed out that no one in Florida under the age of 25 has died of the virus.

Food banks face challenges during pandemic

Hannah Bobek, WUFT

Gainesville’s Bread of the Mighty Food Bank and Ocala’s Living Waters Food pantry are receiving fewer food donations, at the same time, the need for food is increasing.

However, they have combated rising demands by using monetary donations from people in the community to buy and pick up food.

Living Waters volunteer Samuel Herren says members of his team are driving farther than normal to purchase and collect food for the vulnerable populations they serve.

“They are donating more via money which allows us to purchase more fuel for the trucks, put more tires on the trucks and keep them rolling to further locales to get what we need for our area,” Herren said.

Bread of the Mighty is also stepping up. The food bank says it has delivered five million pounds of food in five counties since March.

Non-essential businesses still waiting to reopen

Anthony Montalto, WUFT

Broward County began reopening Monday, but like much of the state, many non-essential businesses there remain closed.

Jeff Condon owns Flippers Cinema, Arcade and Game Center in Hollywood. He says the county and city have not told him when he can reopen, but when he gets the word, he plans to open his arcade before his theaters.

“Our facility is about 40,000 square feet. So if I don’t open up the movies, I don’t have to air condition three quarters of my facility,” Condon said.

Condon says it would also allow for a sort of soft opening to get his staff acquainted with new procedures.

When it’s time to reopen his theaters, he plans to follow what theaters in Texas and Georgia have done: seat customers at least one seat away from each other in all directions.

Florida distillers want change in state law

Bradley George, WUSF

Distilleries are among the many businesses that are struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re asking the governor for help.

Matt Allen is owner of Tampa’s Dark Door Spirits. In March, he switched from making liquor to churning out hand sanitizer. While he’s seen a steady stream of customers, business is down.

“You know, we had a lot of great customers, a lot of local bars and restaurants right here in the Tampa Bay area that carried our products and we were on cocktail menus but you know, that dried up, and it’s not coming back anytime soon,” Allen said.

Under state law, distillers can only sell their products face to face. No online sales, no deliveries.

Allen is part of a trade group which wants to change that, at least temporarily. It would require an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. But so far, the governor hasn’t responded to the request.

Orlando-area jobless rate was 16.2% in April

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

The Orlando area’s unemployment rate rose to 16.2% in April as COVID-19-related closures devastated the region’s economy.

Statewide, Florida reports a seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 12.9 %, with 1, 218,000 people unemployed.

The Orlando metro area, which also includes Lake, Seminole and Osceola counties, was the hardest hit.

Forty-one percent of its jobs in leisure and hospitality have disappeared compared to last year. That reflects a drop in employment of more than 113,000.

Almost 65,000 of those jobs were in bars and restaurants.

Among all the counties in Florida, Osceola had the highest jobless rate, at 20.3%.

1,700 Florida coronavirus tests damaged on way to lab

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — More than 1,700 Floridians will have to be retested for the coronavirus after their state-administered tests were damaged while being transported to the lab for analysis.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said in a statement Thursday that 1,702 tests were damaged out of about 90,000 that have been administered this month.

The state said the individuals are being contacted and will be given priority for retesting at the site they originally visited.

The state did not give details on how the tests were damaged. The state has conducted about 200,000 tests statewide since the start of the pandemic.

Will virus keep Florida spectators from astronaut launch?

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In the age of coronavirus, Florida officials and NASA are split on whether it’s a good idea for spectators to show up for next week’s space launch.

In ordinary times, the beaches and roads along Florida’s Space Coast would be packed with people eager to witness the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years.

NASA and Space X are urging people to stay at home next Wednesday for safety reasons.

But officials in Brevard County, home to the Kennedy Space Center, are rolling out the welcome mat in an effort to jump-start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus lockdowns.

Facebook expects half its employees to work remotely permanently

Shannon Bond, NPR

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he expects half of the tech giant’s 48,000 employees to be working remotely in the next five to 10 years as part of a major shift in how the company operates.

The company plans to begin “aggressively” hiring remote workers, and it will soon allow some current employees to apply to work remotely on a permanent basis, the CEO said in a livestreamed meeting with staff Thursday.

“We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work for our scale,” Zuckerberg said. “But we’re going to do this in a way that is measured and thoughtful and responsible and in phases over time. … Because this is fundamentally about changing our culture and the way that we all are going to work long term.”

The shift is a sign of how the coronavirus pandemic may permanently alter corporate policies and strategies, particularly in industries such as tech, where many employees can do their jobs outside the office. Twitter and Square, the payments company, have told employees they can work from home indefinitely.

On Thursday, Zuckerberg said that an employee survey indicated a lot of interest in permanent remote work and that he saw benefits in allowing more people to shift away from offices. These benefits include recruiting talented staff who don’t live near a current Facebook office, retaining employees who want to move and improving the diversity of the company’s workforce.

“When you limit hiring to people who either live in a small number of big cities or are willing to move there, that cuts out a lot of people who live in different communities, different backgrounds or may have different perspectives on things,” he said.

The company will initially ramp up remote work for new and existing employees in the U.S. and Canada, focusing on experienced workers, especially senior engineers. Some roles, such as hardware development, content moderation, sales and recruiting, will not be able to be done outside the office.

Geographically, Facebook will first look to hire people in areas within a one- to four-hour drive of an existing office, such as Portland, Ore., San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The company is also looking to create new “hubs” with hundreds of remote workers in Atlanta, Dallas and Denver.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that the shift may save money for Facebook. The company will adjust employees’ salaries depending on where they live, he said.

Facebook, like other Silicon Valley companies, was among the first U.S. employers to close offices in the early days of the pandemic. Zuckerberg said 95% of employees are now working remotely.

While Facebook intends to start bringing some workers back to its offices in July, it will limit occupancy to 25% of normal capacity. The company has said that most staff can keep working from home through the end of the year and has canceled gatherings of more than 50 people through June 2021.

More than 336,000 people in Central Florida have filed claims for unemployment due to COVID-19

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

Florida’s newly released data shows devastating job losses, especially for Osceola and Orange counties.

Over 24 percent of workers in Osceola County have filed for unemployment as of May 9th.

That percentage – which represents more than 44,000 people – is the worst in the state by far. 

In Orange County, 16.8 percent of the workforce filed claims. That’s more than 128,000 people.

Workers in the entertainment industry and at hotels and restaurants were hit particularly hard. But thousands in other sectors, including retail sales and health care, also lost their jobs.

Orlando International Airport is considering reductions to its new terminal construction project

Matthew Peddie, WMFE

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board met Wednesday to discuss the ongoing financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Passenger traffic at the airport has fallen by 90 percent in the last few months, impacting revenue from airlines, rental car companies, parking and concessions operators. 

The airport is planning to reduce the number of gates on the South Terminal construction project from 19 to 15, shaving 226 million dollars off the budget. 

Fifty million passengers flew through Orlando International airport last year. This year that number is expected to fall to 27 million.

Passenger numbers aren’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until after 2022.

Transitions during the coronavirus pandemic are especially hard on children

Susan Giles Wantruck, WUSF

Students making the transition to middle or high school next school year may face more challenges than usual after the difficulties of this year – as coronavirus has led to virtual learning for the last few months.

And while parents may not be able to take an actual tour at the school their child will be attending next year, they can certainly take them by the school.

Judy Bryant is a psychology professor at the University of South Florida. She says this will help to ease the transition of starting at a new school.

“But at least you can say, ‘Hey, this is where we are going to do drop-off, or where the bus is going to go, or where you can ride your bicycle and lock it up,’ at least become familiar as best you can,” she says.

Bryant says this is especially important for younger children, even those who will be starting daycare.

Data breach at DEO, secretary requests information

Blaise Gainey, WFSU

A data breach has occurred at Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity. The department says it notified individuals that were part of the incident associated with Reemployment Assistance claims. Exactly how many individuals were impacted has not been released.

In a letter to the department’s head, Orlando Democratic Senator Linda Stewart asked how many were impacted, how the breach occurred, and what is being done to make sure it won’t happen again.

DEO is in charge of processing unemployment claims. The department’s unemployment system has been on the receiving end of a long list of complaints from both elected officials and Floridians over problems with filing claims.

Getting an antibody test for the coronavirus? Here’s what it won’t tell you

Rob Stein, NPR

Salvador Perez got really sick in April. He’s 53 and spent weeks isolated in his room in his family’s Chicago apartment, suffering through burning fevers, shivering chills, intense chest pain and other symptoms of COVID-19.

“This has been one of the worst experiences of his life,” says Perez’s daughter, Sheila, who translated from Spanish to English for an interview with NPR. “He didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Perez recovered and now wants to go back to work as a chef at a Chinese restaurant. But his boss told him he needs a test — an antibody test — first. So he found a place to get one and tested positive. His blood indeed has antibodies to the novel coronavirus — proteins that his immune system produced when it fought off the pathogen.

“He feels great that he can get … back to work, since we haven’t really paid our bills,” Sheila Perez says. “And he feels great that he can start doing what he did before the virus again.”

But her father is also nervous. His doctor told him the antibodies might give him some protection against catching the virus again but also stressed that’s far from guaranteed.

“He’s anxious that he doesn’t want to get sick. He’s kind of scared of going back to work because … he might go through it again,” his daughter says.

Salvador Perez is right to be worried. It’s still not certain that antibodies measured by such a test would protect him from catching the virus again. And if the antibodies are protective, it’s unknown how strong that protection might be or how long it might last. There are also questions about the reliability of many antibody tests being sold.

Researchers are urgently trying to answer those uncertainties and figure out how best to conduct antibody testing.

Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people are getting the tests — many without recognizing how much is still unknown about what the results mean.

Some employers, such as Perez’s restaurant, are requiring workers to take antibody tests if they want to continue working or return to their jobs. Others are getting employees tested to see how widely the virus has spread through their workforce and to try to find ways to improve worker safety. And some labor unions are helping workers get tested in hopes of offering them some sense of security against the virus.

In addition, some individuals are buying the tests themselves out of curiosity and to use as a basis for personal decisions, such as whether it’s safe to start spending more time with close friends and extended family members who are outside the household.

But the idea of using antibody testing in these ways worries many doctors and public health authorities because there are many common misconceptions.

For starters, the antibody tests are only a sign of past infection. Whether the infection is actually gone can only be determined by a diagnostic test that identifies genetic material from the virus or viral particles.

Some people also falsely think testing positive on an antibody test proves they can’t get infected with the virus again.

“I think people just want this to go away and want to resume their normal lives,” says Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious disease for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “But my fear is [antibody tests are] going to be used as this sort of golden ticket to demonstrate immunity — when we just don’t know if that’s the case.”

Still, Wroblewski and others acknowledge the results might offer at least some useful guidance in certain cases.

“If I had a household where I had a number of younger individuals in the household, one of whom had antibodies, I think that that individual would probably be the safest bet to be able to safely go to get the groceries,” says Michael Mina, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious disease at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But, Mina quickly adds, “I still wouldn’t want that individual going to get groceries and then going the next day to a nursing home to see Grandma.” Having antibodies against the coronavirus is just no guarantee that you won’t pick up or pass along an infection, he says.

Still, antibody testing could provide researchers with valuable information for studying overall trends in the epidemic, such as how many people in the community have actually been exposed to the virus. Antibody testing could also help identify people who could donate blood plasma containing antibodies; such plasma is being investigated for possible treatments for COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Juanita Mora, an immunologist at the Chicago Allergy Center, helped Perez and his family get tested with one of the tests that’s at least been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. (The agency recently cracked down on unregulated tests.) Mora has been doing the same for an increasing number of people in Chicago’s Latino community who are being required to get antibody testing by their employers.

“They want to go back to work and feed their families,” Mora says. “They need the money.”

She says she makes sure her patients understand that they still have to be careful and can’t let down their guard just because they get positive results on an antibody test.

“Having positive antibodies may mean that you have some protection, but you can still get it again,” Mora tells her patients. “And then you want to protect your loved ones, right? So you want to teach your kids the right thing to do.”

“So, keep the face cloth on. Keep the social distancing, and so forth,” Mora advises her patients.

But people are not just getting antibody tests to go back to the workplace.

Jon Pepper and his wife, Diane, who live in New York City, had been wondering whether they had COVID-19 ever since they got sick in April. He’s 64, and they’ve simply wondered whether they might now have some immunity to the virus. He decided to get a $119 antibody test directly from Quest Diagnostics, a big commercial laboratory that now sells the test to anyone who wants one. Diane Pepper was soon tested, too.

“The reality is people are going to be scrambling to get testing,” says Dr. Jay Wohlgemuth, Quest’s senior vice president and chief medical officer. “They’re going to get any testing they can get their hands on. We see this as a responsible way to get testing.” The company says it’s a responsible provider —it makes sure a doctor explains the results.

The Peppers say testing positive on the antibody test gave them peace of mind.

“I feel like we have some level of protection that our bodies have been through this, and they’re fighting back,” Jon Pepper says. “And they have the capacity to fight back further if necessary.”

“So I think it’s something that’s in my corner in getting through this,” he adds, “and especially in a hot spot like New York City, where we’re surrounded by people who have been exposed to this and infected.”

Pepper says he and his wife are still being cautious. They stay at least 6 feet away from other people when they go outside. And they’re wearing masks when they go shopping. But Pepper and his wife are now thinking about having their adult children over for dinner for the first time in months.

“At some point we have to resume life again. And based on this test I feel like we have some sense — a bit of security,” Pepper says.

Turtle nesting season off to strong start on Florida beaches

ORLANDO, Fla. (Orlando Sentinel) — Wildlife officials say Florida’s turtle nesting season is off to a strong start.

The University of Central Florida’s Marine Turtle Research Group recently tagged 1,752 loggerhead turtle nests, 29 leatherback nests and three green turtle nests along the 13 miles of the National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County.

In Indian River County researchers also found high numbers of nests. But it’s not totally due to businesses and beaches being shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Warm winter temperatures may have helped the turtles along in their migration to Florida’s beaches.

Turtle nesting season lasts through July.

New jobless claims in Florida stabilize week to week

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The number of Floridians who filed new unemployment claims last week remained almost unchanged from the previous week.

Figures released Thursday by the U.S. Labor Department suggest some stabilization in job losses as Florida businesses have started reopening after being closed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

The labor agency reported that Floridians filed 223,927 jobless claims last week, compared to 223,082 claims filed in the previous week. Only California and New York had more new claims filed last week.

Florida’s tourism industry has been hardest hit, with almost a quarter of the workers who’ve filed jobless claims coming from that industry.

VA cemeteries open for visitation on Memorial Day

Stephanie Colombini, WUSF

Veterans and their families can’t gather in large groups on Memorial Day this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. But they can still visit the graves of fallen heroes at one of Florida’s nine national cemeteries run by the VA.

Visitors are invited to stop by national cemeteries like the one at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg to lay wreaths or small flags on the graves of fallen heroes. Paul Russo is the director of Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

“I consider Memorial Day the nation’s holy day of remembrance of those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice. It needs to be observed, regardless of the current pandemic,” Russo said.

Russo says that’s especially the case this year, the 75th anniversary of World War II ending.

He says visitors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms upon entering the VA campus and social distancing is required. Russo is encouraging people to go over the weekend to avoid the large crowds on Memorial Day.

Bay Pines is also hosting a virtual ceremony Monday on Facebook, as is the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

Attorney General Ashley Moody urges Congress to clear barriers to death benefits

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is joining attorneys general across the country in asking Congress to clear the way for families of first responders who die of COVID-19 to apply for federal benefits.

Right now the family must prove the person caught an infectious disease from a work-related activity.

The attorneys general say that might be difficult to prove with COVID-19. Moody says some Florida police officers have already died due to the virus.

“We must support these brave men and women who face danger daily on our behalf, and as the wife of a law enforcement office I can tell you we must also support their families should they make the ultimate sacrifice,” Moody said.

The United States Senate passed an act to temporarily suspend barriers to death benefits. The House of Representatives is considering the measure.

FAMU alumni to offer career advice to recent grads in upcoming online panel

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU

Florida A & M University alumni who graduated during the Great Recession will give career advice to recent graduates during an upcoming online panel.

According to the PEW Research Center, people who graduated during the Great Recession faced a challenging job market and high unemployment rates. That’s led to delays in major life events like buying homes and getting married and starting families.

Now, recent graduates are facing similar struggles. FAMU’s Shereada Harrell says she hopes recent grads can learn from these alumni.

“We want them to give them their perspective of where they’re—where things were when they graduated and giving them some motivation to keep going,” Harrell said.

Harrell says employers who are still hiring will also be on the panel, giving tips on how to make themselves stand out in a tight job market. The university plans to push out more details on its social media accounts.

Catholic masses can resume across Tampa Bay starting next weekend

Mark Schreiner, WUSF

Catholics across the Tampa Bay region can begin attending Sunday masses starting the weekend of May 30th.

Bishop Gregory Parkes released a video statement, saying Sunday services can resume with churches adhering to social distancing guidelines.

But the leader of the Diocese of St. Petersburg urged caution for those who may be at risk of contracting coronavirus.

“We are called to be good stewards of our health and take practical steps to avoid spreading illness. Therefore, restrictions will be in place since we are still in the midst of a pandemic. For now, we will need to limit the number of people at church for social distancing and to continue the practice of frequent sanitizing,” Parkes said.

It was unclear how churches will enforce the guidelines, and Parkes said reopening is up to each church’s discretion.

Grand jury charges man with threatening to spread virus

The Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man accused of coughing on and spitting at police officers while claiming to be infected with the coronavirus has been indicted on a federal terrorism charge.

Court records say a federal grand jury returned an indictment Wednesday charging 31-year-old James Jamal Curry with perpetrating a biological weapon hoax.

Court records say Curry coughed on a St. Petersburg police officer during a March domestic violence arrest and claimed to have COVID-19.

During another arrest the next night, prosecutors say Curry spit on an officer and repeated his claim. Curry later tested negative for the coronavirus. Curry’s attorney says prosecutors are stretching a law meant for terrorists to cover a run-of-the-mill police encounter.

Universal Orlando seeks to reopen theme parks in early June

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Universal Orlando is aiming to reopen its theme parks in early June.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that company executive John Sprouls on Thursday asked Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for approval to open as early as June 5.

Demings must sign off on Universal’s reopening plan before it heads to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his approval. Universal Orlando and crosstown rivals, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando, have been closed since mid-March in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Disney and Universal reopened shopping and restaurant complexes during the past week, with several restrictions.

Like what you just read? Check out our other coronavirus coverage. 


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