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Climbing COVID Cases, And Pressure Over Masks In The Classroom

Joann Marcus of Fort Lauderdale, left, cheers as she listens to the Broward School Board's emergency meeting, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A small but vocal group spoke vehemently against masks, saying their personal rights were being eroded and their children were suffering socially. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Marta Lavandier
Joann Marcus of Fort Lauderdale, left, cheers as she listens to the Broward School Board's emergency meeting, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale. Broward school students and teachers will be required to wear masks when school starts in mid-August.

COVID-19 infections are rising fast in Florida with the first day of school just a few weeks away. Gov. DeSantis does not want to mandate masks in classrooms.

COVID-19 is spreading at a high rate in all but one Florida county, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Glades County, just west of Lake Okeechobee, is the exception. But even in Glades County the community transmission of the virus there is rated as substantial.

What it means is that across the state, the CDC recommends people wear masks indoors regardless if you are vaccinated or not. That is the new guidance that came out this week.

It is impossible to get a daily picture of the virus in Florida. The state health department no longer releases data every day. This week, the only statewide elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried pledged to have her department release daily reports on cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

“While some may want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that this pandemic is over, or even worse that this is just a seasonal virus that will go away, we are very much still in the middle of a major public health crisis in our state,” she said.

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While the virus is spreading throughout the state, it has been spreading faster in the Jacksonville area, straining local health care facilities. Mary Mayhew is the former state health care administrator. She now is president of the Florida Hospital Association.

"We have hospitals in certain areas of the state that have already greatly exceeded their previous peak northeast Florida in the Jacksonville area, they are between 100 and 92 percent and 100 and 50 percent of their previous peak," she told member station WUSF in Tampa.

Almost 9,000 people are in Florida hospitals with COVID-19. That almost matches the high seen during last summer’s surge. And it has been rising fast — up five fold in the past month.

Public hospitals "were seeing really significant and rapid upturn in the number of cases over the last week or so" according to Justin Senior, CEO Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. More than 90 percent of the hospitalizations in the 14 major public hospitals are of unvaccinated people said Senior.

The patients are younger than those who sought care during the surge last summer. The median age now is around 40 years old. The big difference between the surge this summer and last summer are vaccines. A higher proportion of older Floridians are vaccinated as they were targeted earlier for doses.

About 12 million people in Florida have received at least one vaccine shot according to the CDC. That's 56 percent of the population, which includes children younger than 12 years old who are not eligible to receive a vaccine.

Masks in Schools

Public school teachers and students will be back in their classrooms in two weeks in some Florida school districts. As the second pandemic school year begins, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday said he would release an executive order that the state's education and health departments issue
"emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children."

On Monday, DeSantis held a roundtable discussion, but the public and press were not invited. It was not on The Florida Channel, the state-funded television network. Only two days after the discussion did the governor’s office post clips of the event on the Canada-based video hosting platform Rumble.

The topic of the talk: masks in school classrooms, and the governor’s strong opposition to any effort to require masks when school starts next month.

"This should absolutely not be imposed, it should not be mandated, and I know our legislature feels strongly about it such that if if you started to see a push from the feds or some of these local school districts, I know they're interested in coming in, even in a special session, to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely and don't want to be suffering under these masks during the school year," he said.

One of the largest school districts in Florida is ignoring the governor, at least for now. On Wednesday, the Broward County Public School Board decided that all students and staff will have to wear masks when they come back to school in two and a half weeks.

Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said the board was considering making masks optional until the CDC released new recommendations that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks indoors if the community is experiencing substantial or high rates of community spread. The CDC rates Broward County with a high rate of spread.

"When you look at Broward specifically in the that pandemic numbers, our numbers are rapidly rising and we're seeing a lot of new infections. So I think in an abundance of caution, we wanted to protect our students and our staff," Osgood said.

While the current Broward policy is in clear opposition to the governor's desires, Osgood was careful to note that the board would not violate an executive order. "If the governor issued an executive order that we can't mandate masks, then we can't violate the law. We have to come in alignment whatever the law tells us."

The new school year is a worry for Dr. Michael Muszynski, a pediatric infectious disease specialist. "We're worried that there's going to be an increased amount of cases among children, potential transmission outside of the school to others, including family members who are unvaccinated or friends who are unvaccinated. The issue here is that with children going back to school at the time of the highest rate of the epidemic, it doesn't seem logical that you would take away measures that you use," he said.

Muszynski has focused on children and infectious diseases since 1983. He said he doesn't like masks. "I don't enjoy them," he said. "I know masks cause trouble for children in school with communication and socialization and other things. But this is an extraordinary circumstance. I mean, we haven't seen anything like this in just over 110 years. And here it is. And we need to do extraordinary measures to combat extraordinary circumstances."

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.