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The South Florida Roundup

The trial resumes, COVID cases rise again, and unanswered calls in Broward County

Image: VA VAntage Point blog
Image: VA VAntage Point blog

Jury selection for Nikolas Cruz' trial was heading for a restart, but the judge reversed her decision. COVID-19 cases have been increasing in South Florida as a new subvariant rises, but are we better prepared? And a deeper look at the unanswered 911 calls throughout Broward County.

The Parkland school shooter death penalty trial was back in court last week, and the week started with the judge deciding to start jury selection all over again.

But last Wednesday, Judge Elizabeth Scherer reversed her decision, and jury selection resumed. She called her earlier ruling premature.

It is the latest glitch in the effort to select people who will decide whether Nicolas Cruz lives in prison or dies. He has admitted to killing 17 people and hurting 17 others four years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

WLRN Broward reporter Gerard Albert III said that the demeanor and facial expressions of the lawyers on the case showed they were definitely frustrated with the proceedings of the case.

“Death penalty cases are never simple, but this one is especially messy … I think the lawyers now are seeing that and dealing with it,” he said.

Attorney Edith Georgi, a former Miami-Dade public defender, said the trial will permanently be complicated because of the initial rejection of 11 jurors. The Cruz trial is known across the state, which already makes finding a fair jury for the case difficult, she said.

In the courtroom, Albert said the biggest change came from Scherer. He said she is a lot more stern and frustrated with the litigation and the process.

Trial management is important in cases, especially high-profile cases like this one, Georgi said. She said this is the worst case for a judge who has never tried a capital case to jump into.

“The judge really needs to set the ground rules, really needs to stay in control … It’s traumatic on everyone in the courtroom with a case like this,” she said.

Without routine and proper ground rules established and followed by the judge, Georgi said it leads to plenty of stress on both the prosecution and the defense. The changing decisions and uncertainty can lead to a lack of confidence in the judge, she said.

The date for the hearing of opening arguments has been pushed back to the middle of June. The date for the second round of jury selection, where the accepted jurors will be questioned further, may be held sometime in the next two weeks.

COVID-19 detection through sewage water

COVID-19 infections are climbing again. After dropping for months from the omicron surge at the beginning of the year, new cases of the virus are increasing again. The latest data — which is more than a week old — shows new infections in Miami-Dade County rising to the highest level since February. The Centers for Disease Control now rates community spread in Miami-Dade at a medium level.

While case counts are slowly rising in Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, those counties remain at a low community spread level of COVID.

A lot of surveillance of the recent COVID-19 infection increases has been done through monitoring sewage.

Those with COVID-19 shed the virus through their feces, and if their toilets are on the county system, their wastewater will end up at one of the three wastewater treatment plants, explained Daniel Chang, the healthcare reporter for the Miami Herald.

Samples at these plants are then sent up to Biobot Analytics in Boston to be tested for particles of COVID-19 through concentration per liter.

“Over the past few months those concentrations have been going up pretty significantly, particularly in the central plant that is right off of Key Biscayne, but they’ve also been going up in the north and the south wastewater treatment plants too,” Cheng said.

The numbers aren’t as high as the numbers were during the peak of the omicron variant, but they are going up.

Chang said this monitoring system, to his understanding, can help detect COVID-19 in those who are affected up to a week before they show symptoms. It will give counties and other public health officials time to give warnings and take precautions.

Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor at FIU and an infectious disease expert, said that another important aspect of monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 is that we also get information about what strain is more prevalent.

She said that every strain they’ve been seeing in the county is almost all BA.2, a subvariant of omicron. Since so many Miami-Dade residents had BA.1 earlier in the year, they have some level of immunity against BA.2, which Dr. Marty said is vital because BA.2 is more contagious and quite deadly.

“Among people who do not have either prior immunity from infection or immunity from vaccines, it's just as deadly and just as serious as the original SARS COVID-2 that we detected in Wuhan,” she said.

For now, Dr. Marty said we have achieved herd immunity. 'Ffor now’ is an important stipulation because she said know two other things about coronaviruses: They do not provide lifelong immunity, and immunity from vaccines also wanes.

She said that there is an interesting balance where immunity is currently beating BA.2.

"Right now it looks good, public health-wise we are not in a public health emergency in Florida at this time, and that means our hospitals are not overwhelmed at this time,” Dr. Marty said.

Chang said according to the CDC, 85% of Miami-Dade’s population is vaccinated, but in terms of boosters, about 33% of the vaccinated population have received the first booster dose.

To prepare for further circulation of the BA.2 variant, Dr. Marty recommends businesses need to make sure they have the best possible ventilation in their facilities.

“That means having at least MREV 13 rated filtration systems for their HVAC systems, and that's something all businesses, schools buildings etc. really ought to be sure that they do because that is one of the key factors in transmission,” she said.

Chang said the chief medical officer for the county’s public health system told him they have been seeing a slight uptick in cases, and they’re catching more people who didn’t know they were infected until they were admitted for a different reason.

“I think it’s an interesting dynamic that we need to be careful about … because it also means that they’re spreading the disease,” Chang said. “Miami-Dade is the only county right now according to the CDC with a medium-level of COVID.”

Abandoned calls climbing in Broward County

In Broward County, thousands of 9-1-1 calls have gone unanswered. According to an investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the number of abandoned calls has risen over the past three years.

Sun Sentinel Data Reporter Spencer Norris told WLRN’s Sundial program this week the time it takes to answer a 9-1-1 call in Broward County is another issue with the emergency center.

And then there’s staffing. Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said they have around 89 open call-taker and dispatcher positions. He said they're facing recruitment and retention issues due to pay raises, salaries and workload.

“We’re allocated roughly 400 positions in that particular field, and to be down that significant portion defeats the national numbers and recommendations and protocols,” he said.

Tony wants to remain competitive, but they can’t do that as they keep losing employees that move either north or south for more pay. He said the Broward Regional Call Center receives 1.2 million more 911 calls than Miami-Dade County per year, and Palm Beach County receives about 410,000 911 calls per year.

“In Palm Beach County, their members receive between 15 to 20,000 dollars more, for less of the work,” Sheriff Tony said.

The starting salary for a communications specialist I in Broward County is $37,000 to $38,000. This salary is covered by funding from the county. The Broward County Sheriff’s office proposes a budget to the county for what they need, and the county can modify that budget.

Tony said that over the last four years, these modifications to their communication budget requests have added up to $13 million.

“What it does is restrict our ability to enhance pay increases and become more competitive. You can't start with a deficit in the millions every single year in the operations budget,” he said.

Tonysaid abandoned calls occur when someone calls 911 and disconnects early or gets disconnected for another reason. When that happens, the call center calls the person back. With more employees, he said they would be able to pick up those calls quicker and give residents the help they need.

The Sheriff’s Office will bring a new budget request at the next County Commission meeting scheduled for May 10.

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Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.