Photo via Florida Health
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees generated national headlines when he called protective measures such as face masks and social distancing the “new normal” during a press conference this week.
Floridians’ novel existence will continue until researchers create a vaccine for the highly contagious coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease known as COVID-19, according to Rivkees, who doubles as secretary of the state Department of Health.
How long will the new normal last? “Probably a year, if not longer,” Rivkees said.
“As long as we are going to have COVID in the environment, and this is a tough virus, we are going to have to practice these measures so we are all protected,” he added.
The surgeon general’s straight talk didn’t appear to sit well with DeSantis’ communications director, Helen Ferré. Shortly after his remarks, Ferré whispered in Rivkees’ ear, and the two exited the press conference.
Rivkees’ blunt comments were a stark contrast to the DeSantis administration’s secrecy about outbreaks in prisons and long-term care facilities.
For nearly a week, Department of Corrections officials did not disclose that two inmates at a Northwest Florida prison had died as a result of COVID-19.
State health care officials also refuse to identify assisted-living facilities and nursing homes where deaths have made up about a fifth of Florida’s total coronavirus-related fatalities. The Miami Herald has filed a notice of intent to sue DeSantis to obtain the information.
Florida’s First Amendment Foundation President Pamela C. Marsh offered some unsolicited advice to the Republican governor in an op-ed this week.
“The media does not have to be your enemy. Together, we can help you provide accurate, life-saving information,” Marsh, a former federal prosecutor, wrote. “How can we help our communities if we don’t know the truth about its needs? If you begin to lead our entire state by example, with total transparency, only then will you have our trust as leader.”
NURSING HOME WOES
About one in five of the state’s COVID-19 deaths stem from long-term care facilities, new data released by DeSantis’ administration revealed.
As of Friday morning, 141 of the state’s 686 reported COVID-19 deaths were related to infections at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other types of long-term care centers in 23 counties.
The state releases reports twice a day showing a variety of statistics about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did not provide a death toll for long-term care facilities until Wednesday evening. In all, 1,515 COVID-19 cases as of Friday morning involved long-term care residents or staff members, though the state numbers do not break down how many only involve residents.
“The fact that one in five fatalities started as an infection in a long-term care facility —- and in some counties, 100 percent of all fatalities —- demonstrates that the residents of long-term care facilities are among the most vulnerable groups of all in this pandemic,” AARP Florida spokesman Dave Bruns told The News Service of Florida.
The additional data was disclosed amid mounting criticism of the DeSantis administration’s refusal to release the names of long-term care facilities that house infected residents or the number of facilities battling the alarmingly fast spread of the virus.
Four Florida prisoners have died as a result of COVID-19, but state corrections officials did not release information about deaths until a medical examiner this week confirmed the fatalities of two inmates at a Santa Rosa County facility.
Department of Corrections officials kept the deaths of inmates at Blackwater River Correctional Facility secret for nearly a week, despite numerous questions from The News Service of Florida about fatalities.
Jeffrey Sand, a 69-year-old inmate, died April 9 from complications related to COVID-19, according to Jeff Martin, the director of the medical examiner’s office that oversees Santa Rosa County.
Blackwater inmate William Wilson, 84, died three days later as a result of COVID-19, Martin told the News Service.
Wilson and Sand appear to be the first two COVID-19-related deaths among the state’s roughly 94,000 inmates. Two more inmate deaths followed this week.
After long refusing to reveal how many prisoners and staff members had been tested for the virus, the Department of Corrections on Wednesday night began releasing information about inmate testing.
As of Thursday, 310 Florida prisoners had been tested for the virus, with 54 percent of tests results pending, according to the corrections agency. The number of tests that had been performed encompassed about 0.3 percent of the state’s inmates.
Officials have not disclosed the number of staff members who have undergone testing for the virus.
“It terrifies me that the state is not being transparent,” Natausha Hunt, whose 28-year-old son Gary Ford is a Blackwater inmate who has been exposed to the virus, told the News Service on Wednesday. “This heightens my fear for my son, inmates and families. I’m so scared for my son.”
The number of COVID-19 cases at Blackwater, a prison operated by The Geo Group Inc., a private contractor, skyrocketed in the last week. More than three-fourths of the 44 Florida inmates infected by the disease as of Thursday were housed at the Milton facility, according to the state corrections agency.
As of Thursday, 63 workers, along with the 44 inmates —- including 34 at Blackwater —- had tested positive for COVID-19, the corrections department said. COVID-19 had been detected in 25 prisons and three probation offices throughout the corrections system, which has roughly 23,000 workers and 145 facilities.
Payments had been made Thursday to roughly 4 percent of the more than 800,000 people who had filed jobless claims since the coronavirus started shuttering businesses across the state.
On Wednesday, DeSantis removed Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson from oversight of the CONNECT unemployment system. He put the system, which cost $77 million to get online in 2013, into the hands of Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.
Part of the reason for the shake-up was the inability of Lawson’s department to provide daily updates on claims and payments.
DeSantis told reporters Thursday that checks had been sent to 33,623 people who had applied for benefits since the beginning of March through the troubled unemployment-compensation system.
With early qualifiers drawing multiple checks, about $50 million had gone out in state assistance —- in checks of up to $275 a person a week.
Separately, 23,801 checks had gone out to people who qualified for federal money under a new federal stimulus law. The federal payments go up to $600 a week.
“While we’ve made some progress in the recent days, it’s not nearly enough. We’ve had an unprecedented number of claims and we have to work through them,” DeSantis said.
STORY OF THE WEEK:
Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to grapple with the impact of COVID-19 by shaking up the office that handles unemployment claims and beginning to release information about coronavirus-related deaths at prisons and long-term care facilities.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
“Until we get a vaccine, which is a while off, this is going to be our new normal and we need to adapt and protect ourselves.” —- State Surgeon General and Florida Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees, speaking to reporters about COVID-19.
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