Last Updated: Monday, 12:18 p.m.
Flagler County’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 rose to 13 as Florida’s reached 5,473 on Monday, now exceeding Washington State, an earlier hot spot in the coronavirus emergency, with 63 deaths attributed to the disease in the state. Fifty-two of Florida’s 67 counties have confirmed Covid cases.
On Sunday, President Trump abandoned his earlier projection that social distancing could end by Easter–which falls on April 12 this year–and extended the directive through the end of April, raising the possibility that it could be June 1 before the country is well on our way to recovery.”
“During this period, it’s very important that everyone strongly follow the guidelines. Have to follow the guidelines,” Trump said from the Rose Garden Sunday. “Therefore, we will be extending our guidelines to April 30 to slow the spread.” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said in a television appearance that he’d raised the prospect to the president of 200,000 Americans dying of the disease. Trump also revealed that a close friend of his was infected and quickly went into a coma. He said if nothing was done, up to 2.2 million Americans could die.
The extension is likely to lead governors, state and public health agencies across the country to follow suit, making it more likely than not that in-person school will not resume in Florida at least until May, and possibly not again until after summer. Flagler County schools’ 13,000 students returned to class this morning, but from home, through the school district’s virtual networks, as teachers taught live by video and students sat home listening, watching and interacting.
Eight of Flagler County’s cases affect Palm Coast residents. Bunnell has its first case. Flagler Beach has at least one case. Others are in unincorporated Flagler, with one case affecting a non-resident. One of the infected individuals is a 17-year-old girl who’d had previous contact with a confirmed Covid case. That is the youngest person affected in Flagler, though a Flagler Palm Coast High School student has also been infected, according to his mother, but is not counted among Flagler’s numbers because he lives in Volusia County.
Despite the rising numbers, Flagler County continues to be among the counties where testing has lagged, with a mere 24 tests conducted at AdventHealth Palm Coast–and two positives there, one of them affecting a Volusia County resident who had been treated there but has since been released–and 178 tests conducted in total, many of them through the Flagler Department of Health. Even in Miami Dade and Broward counties the two counties heaviest-hit by coronavirus, only 20,000 tests have been conducted in both by Monday, a rate below 400 per 100,000. On March 26, New York’s rate was 627 per 100,000 and rising fast. Almost 44,000 people had been tested across Florida by Sunday morning, according to the Florida Health Department.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday announced the likely arrival next week of a limited number of “rapid tests” that could produce a result within hours as opposed to four to six days. He said he was hoping to have 1,000 rapid tests delivered to the state.
The governor barred access to his briefing Saturday to Mary Ellen Klas, a reporter who covers the state capital for the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald, after Klas had requested that the governor allow questions to be asked through Zoom-like video conferencing systems. Klas tends to ask more challenging questions at the governor’s briefing, and her exclusion may have been motivated by the governor’s desire not to face difficult questions. “The governor’s office continues to hold briefings that run counter to the recommended 6-foot-rule that public health experts say is necessary for social distancing,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.
“On Twitter,” the paper continued, “Klas said a reporter for the News Service of Florida was told that he would be shut out as well if he insisted that Klas be allowed to cover the press conference in person. She posted a video of the DeSantis spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, explain that Klas could view the press conference on a state-sponsored public affairs media service that live streams state government events.”
At the briefing, DeSantis announced the creation of an Interstate 95 checkpoint on Florida’s northern border to screen motorists traveling from the New York City area, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, after ordering a similar check-point at the west end of the state for travelers from Louisiana.
On Sunday, a worker at a South Florida juvenile-justice facility has tested positive for COVID-19, and seven Florida Department of Corrections employees who work at separate facilities across the state have tested positive. Outbreaks in prisons and jails are especially difficult to contain. One federal inmate in a prison in Louisiana has died as a flattening curve continues to elude communities across the country: on Saturday alone, more than 21,000 cases–almost a sixth of the total–were announced. Total number of cases Sunday afternoon were at 136,000, and expected to reach 150,000 before Monday–almost twice as many as in China, where the pandemic originated.
DeSantis late this week shut down vacation rentals across the state for two weeks but continues to resist any move toward a more systematic, across-the-board lockdown, saying he was likelier to break down the state’s counties into three categories that would reflect the degree of infection in each.
The I-95 checkpoint is an expansion of screenings already underway at certain Florida airports aimed at people coming from the tri-state area around New York City, one of the nation’s “hot spots” for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. Florida officials on Saturday were operating a checkpoint on Interstate 10 west of Pensacola, with all non-commercial motorists detoured to a vehicle weigh station where license plates and driver’s licenses were checked and motorists were asked about their travels.
“Initially I was concerned about doing this because I don’t want there to be a backup,” DeSantis told reporters at Saturday’s press conference. “But they’re doing it in a great way where the trucks are going through. We’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about the people fleeing some of those areas.”
DeSantis also used Saturday’s press conference at the Capitol to announce that Florida is working to make a hydroxychloroquine, a low-cost generic malaria drug, available to hospital systems in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Hillsborough counties.
“I’m not a doctor. I’m not telling anyone to take it or not take it,” DeSantis said. “But I do believe in the idea of a right to try. If somebody is really in bad shape and there is no other treatment available and the doctor believes this is something that could be helpful, then we want that patient to have access to that.”
The governor’s staff said the hospital systems have requested the drug, which President Donald Trump recently touted as a possible COVID-19 cure. Federal health officials have said more study is needed on the efficacy of the drug as a treatment for COVID-19.
Trump, a close ally of DeSantis, told reporters Saturday that he was considering a two-week quarantine for the northern states. But he backed off the proposal subsequently. Later, the Centers for Disease Control issued a domestic travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut–but not Louisiana. “CDC urges residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to refrain from non-essential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately,” the CDC said. “This Domestic Travel Advisory does not apply to employees of critical infrastructure industries, including but not limited to trucking, public health professionals, financial services, and food supply.” CDC left the implementation of the advisory to the “full discretion” of the governors of the three states affected.
In an effort to deter travel from New York City, the Florida National Guard and public health officials have been screening travelers on flights from the metropolitan area coming into airports in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Palm Beach, as well as Southwest Florida.
Saying the screening is working, DeSantis told reporters that a person whose symptoms of COVID-19 had abated was showing signs of the respiratory disease again, following a flight Friday from New York to Jacksonville.
“He was intercepted when he came to the checkpoint and he was diverted to go a hospital,” DeSantis said. “That’s something I think helps protect Floridians.” The individual and people that were seated near him on the plane are now being treated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DeSantis’ aides said. The name of the airline and the hospital where the individual was taken were not released.
DeSantis continues to face criticism from Democrats and local officials for not issuing a statewide stay-in-place order. He said his goal in targeting certain travelers is to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, an effort health officials call “flattening the curve” of the disease. “I think it’s in everybody’s interest that we deal with the spread that we have here now, try to blunt it, flatten the curve, but we don’t allow importing new infections,” the governor said.
Asked about other access points for motorists — such as U.S. 1 and the Amtrak Auto Train, which stops in Sanford — DeSantis said I-95 is the “natural one” for motorists from the Northeast. “I think having the (Interstate) 10 and (Interstate) 95 is good, that provides the protection,” DeSantis said. It is unclear how travelers wise to the decision and taking any one of many alternate routes would be monitored.
At the Department of Corrections, agency officials would not release the positions held by the seven infected prison workers, but in a statement said the employees either worked for the corrections department or one of its contractors at five prisons and two probation offices.
The staffers work at Century Correctional Institute in Escambia County; Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade County; Florida Women’s Reception Center and Marion Correctional Institution, both in Ocala; Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County; and community corrections regional offices in Lake Butler and West Palm Beach. The employees will not return to work until they have been cleared by health officials, the agency said.
An investigation is underway to identify inmates and staff who may need to go into isolation after coming into close contact with the employees infected with the highly contagious virus, officials said in the statement.
While the number of people exposed to the employees is unknown, the department confirmed Tuesday that three workers at the Marion Correctional Institution have been placed in self-isolation after being exposed by an infected employee there.
There are no confirmed coronavirus cases within the inmate population as of 9 a.m. Friday, officials said.
Any inmates who show COVID-19 symptoms or who have been in contact with an employee who tested positive for the virus will be placed in medical isolation, according to the department. Symptomatic inmates will be isolated in their dormitories until they are medically cleared, and local health officials will determine whether those inmates need to be tested, corrections officials said.
A corrections department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for information about how many inmates or workers have been tested statewide.
But corrections officials said they are working with the Florida Department of Health to monitor and contain potential outbreaks in the prison system, which has 143 facilities, more than 23,000 employees and roughly 96,000 inmates — including thousands of elderly offenders.
To prevent the virus from spreading, the department has suspended face-to-face inmate visitations, restricted the intake of county jail inmates and started screening anyone who enters a correctional institution.
Only employees who are considered “essential” are allowed to come to work, the department said.
As of Thursday, essential employees included some educators who have been asked to “provide as much education programming as possible” while programs are temporarily adjusted, according to a memo obtained by The News Service of Florida. During a press conference Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis did not appear to have a full grasp of the type of work flexibility offered to corrections employees with COVID-19 symptoms.
When asked by reporters if it was reasonable to require symptomatic corrections workers to use their paid time off to self-quarantine, DeSantis said, “I don’t know if those reports are true.”
The employee of the Broward Youth Treatment Center was confirmed Friday as having the highly contagious disease. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice did not specify the employee’s job duties or details such as the employee’s age or gender.
A news release from the department said the employee has been off work for five days and will not return “until a full recovery is documented by a medical professional. DJJ is working closely with the local county health department to determine next steps for screening staff and the youth at the program.”
The Broward Youth Treatment Center has 27 youths in its program, and parents and guardians have been notified about the employee testing positive, the Department of Juvenile Justice said. All of the youths and other staff members were asymptomatic as of Sunday morning, and additional teens are not being admitted to the program.
The Pembroke Pines facility, in part, provides substance-abuse and mental-health treatment services to boys ages 13 to 18. The facility is operated by a contractor, Youth Opportunity, which also runs other juvenile-justice facilities in the state, according to information on the Youth Opportunity website.
–News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive
By the Numbers, As of Sunday:
— 4,246: Total number of confirmed cases.
— 483: Increase in cases from a Saturday morning count.
— 56: Deaths of Florida residents.
— 59: Cases in long-term care facilities.
— 21: Cases in long-term care facilities in Broward County.
— 18: Cases in long-term care facilities in Duval County.
— 6: Cases in long-term care facilities in Baker County.
— 7: Overall number of cases in Baker County.
— 50: Counties with confirmed cases.
— 17: Counties without any confirmed cases.
— 1,192: Cases in Miami-Dade County, the largest number in the state.
— 6: Counties with one case each (Bradford, Gadsden, Hendry, Suwannee, Washington and Jackson).
Source: Florida Department of Health