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As state cracks down, local governments say they aren't breaking Florida's 'vaccine passport' ban

This file photo shows syringes filled with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a mobile vaccination site in Miami. Police departments that are requiring officers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are running up against pockets of resistance across the U.S.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
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AP
FILE - This May 13, 2021, file photo shows syringes filled with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a mobile vaccination site in Miami. Police departments that are requiring officers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are running up against pockets of resistance across the U.S. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

The state of Florida ups pressure over vaccine mandates. The battle against breast cancer. And the deadly year for one of Florida’s favorite marine mammals.

Dozens of companies and local governments — even concerts from a pop singer and a country music band — are being investigated by the state for their vaccine requirements. State law bans so-called vaccine passports.

Concert-goers to recent Harry Styles and the Zac Brown Band shows had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. A public records request of the state Department of Health by the Orlando Sentinel found more than 100 complaints are "under review" according to the state.

These include several local governments. An airline, a cruise ship operator, a defense contractor, and a public library are on the list, too.

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State law bans companies from requiring customers to be vaccinated and prohibits local governments from requiring vaccinations.

This week, the state fined Leon County $3.5 million for its vaccine policy, calling it a "blatant violation." Leon County defended its employee vaccine requirement, saying it was legally justifiable, necessary and responsible.

The Alachua County board of commissioners is among those appearing on the state's list. The county requires employees to disclose their vaccination status, and those not showing proof have to be tested weekly.

"We think it's important that we understand the risks for them as well as for those that are working with them," said Alachua County Chairman Ken Cornell.

The county has not fired any worker for not showing proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Cornell. He said compliance with its policy is 100% — either showing proof of being vaccinated or undergoing regular testing.

In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law prohibiting companies from requiring customers to be vaccinated. The law also bans local governments from "from requiring persons to provide documentation certifying vaccination against or recovery from COVID-19.”

But Cornell is not worried.

"I have absolutely no concerns or worries at all that we've done anything illegal," he said.

The city of Miramar also appears on the state list of entities targeted for their vaccination policies. Miramar is offering city hall and police employees $500 if they show proof of vaccination by Nov. 1. Afterward, the city will begin weekly testing of those who have not supplied evidence.

"We're not penalizing our employees for not being vaccinated," said Mayor Wayne Messam.

The state law allows local governments to use "screening protocols consistent with authoritative or controlling government-issued guidance to protect public health.”

"We think that the city of Miramar being on this list," said Messam, "is not only ludicrous, but is a breach and an overreach regarding our home authority."

Breast Cancer Fight

More than 20,000 Floridians will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to estimates from the American Cancer Society. Thousands of families are living with the disease and thousands more are survivors.

Florida’s first family finds itself as one of the most recent families dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis.

Last week, the governor’s office announced that First Lady Casey DeSantis has breast cancer. The governor made his first public comments this week.

"She is a very, very strong woman, and it's not an easy thing when this happens because your life is going. Then all of a sudden this is something that that puts that in the balance," he said.

The type and stage of Casey DeSantis’ breast cancer has not been released.

One out of eight women have a lifetime risk of developing the disease. According to state data, the rate of breast cancer has been rising over the decade between 2006 and 2015. Women over 65 years old are at a higher risk than younger women.

Racial disparities can also be significant and deadly. Breast cancer death rates among Black women in Florida are higher than the death rates from lung cancer. Florida is one of only a handful of states where that exists.

"Lung cancer normally is the leading cause of cancer death, but in [Black people] in Florida, unfortunately, the mortality rate of breast cancer is actually number one," said Dr. Saranya Chumsri with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Jacksonville.

Screening, early detection, transportation, cost and other access to care challenges may help explain the difference, she said.

"All of those things probably play a role in that mortality incidence," Chumsri said.

Cynthia Farrah is a breast cancer survivor and volunteer for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. She described the first few weeks after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis as "a whirlwind" — meeting doctors, treatment specialists, surgeons and others.

"There's a lot of information coming at you all at once. With all the emotional turmoil, it's really too much for one person," she said.

Her advice is for a new cancer patient to have an advocate — a spouse, adult child, close friend — alongside them to listen, take notes and help navigate the health care system.

Manatee Deaths

Florida’s beloved manatees are in big trouble.

State wildlife officials reported nearly 1,000 of the marine mammals have died so far this year. The record-setting number of deaths has conservationists sounding the alarm.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission has asked state lawmakers for nearly $7 million to help restore the waterways manatees call home.

"We have several projects in the hopper that we are ready to implement, we know this is something that is going to be critically important, so that is a budget request," said Gil McRae with FWC.

Manatee habitats are key to preventing more deaths. The mammals’ key food source, seagrass, has been declining due to poor water quality. The decline is believed to be linked to many manatees dying of starvation.

This calamity has prompted an urgent federal state effort to brace for potentially more deaths this winter because the water quality problems and seagrass losses in the Indian River Lagoon are not going to be resolved any time soon," said Amy Green, WMFE Public Radio's environmental reporter.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated the die-off as an unusual mortality event, prompting a federal investigation and efforts to prevent more deaths.

"I think our community has really shown it's serious," said David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. "The reality is, if you want to halt the manatee die-off, you have to halt the decline of seagrass. And if you want that to happen, you have to talk about serious dollars for fixing our water quality problems."

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.