Weekly roundup: Florida in the coronavirus bullseye

click to enlarge Weekly roundup: Florida in the coronavirus bullseye
Image via News Sevice of Florida
After snapping up gallons of hand sanitizer, barrels of disinfectant wipes and buckets of bleach spray, Floridians this week flooded the Etsy e-commerce site in search of face masks.

Health officials’ recommendation that people cover their noses and mouths when they leave home is the latest effort to gird against COVID-19 in an increasingly dystopian world.

Hundreds of thousands of Sunshine State workers have lost their jobs, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and his team race to bolster the broken system where fearful folks can apply for unemployment benefits.

The number of inmates and workers in the state’s massive prison system who have tested positive for COVID-19 is soaring.

The number of reported COVID-19 infections at long-term care facilities increased by nearly 500 during the past week, with 629 cases in 47 counties as of Friday morning.

And the death toll caused by the virus continues to rise, here and around the globe.

Music lovers are mourning this week’s passing of John Prine, the 73-year-old singer/songwriter Rolling Stone called “one of America’s greatest songwriters.”

Prine died Tuesday in Nashville from complications related to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Prine, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last year, was revered for chronicling the plight of working-class Americans in songs that mixed humor and pathos.

In one of his last songs, “When I Get to Heaven,” Prine contemplates his own mortality and lays out a post-death plan to shake God’s hand, start a band, order a drink, reconnoiter with loved ones and kiss a pretty girl.

“Yeah, this old man is goin’ to town,” Prine pledged.


While the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections at nursing homes and assisted living facilities skyrocketed during the past week, state health officials won’t say whether there is “community spread” of the disease in long-term care facilities.

But Live Oak City Council member Don Allen has seen the number of coronavirus cases in his rural county increase to 58, including 36 involving long-term care residents or staff members.

Allen told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that the long-term care cases in Suwannee County stem from the Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center in Live Oak, about two blocks from where he lives.

“This nursing home is in my district and so I consider these people my constituents, and somebody has got to care for them,” Allen said, explaining his decision to speak with the press about the nursing home. “I’ve spoken with employees there who want to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, but they are scared. They want the National Guard to come in there and clean the place up.”

Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center did not reply to requests for comment this week. Neither did the Suwannee County Emergency Operations Center.

Allen said he has kept abreast of infections in the facility through extended family members and friends who have loved ones there. He also reviews state data.

And on Monday, Allen sat in his parked car outside the facility to watch the comings and goings.

“I worry about the people. I know them. I know those who work there,” Allen said. “I don’t want to be like the place in Seattle on TV every night where they start hauling them out of there, dead.”

As of Friday morning, Thursday evening, Florida had 17,531 cases of COVID-19 and 390 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.


Corrections workers, inmates and their families are growing increasingly frightened as the virus begins to spread within the country’s third-largest prison system.

The number of inmates at a Santa Rosa County prison who have tested positive for COVID-19 skyrocketed to 30 on Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Thursday’s tally at Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County was a jump from a Wednesday report of just four positive cases among prisoners.

All but one of the state’s 31 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 are located at the Milton facility, operated by The Geo Group, a private prison contractor. The other prisoner is housed at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, according to corrections officials.

In addition to the 30 inmates at Blackwater, six employees at the prison have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Officials with the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees private prison contracts, have not revealed how many inmates with COVID-19 symptoms have been placed in isolation at Blackwater or how many of the facility's inmates and staff have been tested.

Corrections officials maintain they are taking many measures to prevent the spread of the virus within the system, which has roughly 94,000 inmates, 143 facilities and about 23,000 workers. For example, new inmates are placed in quarantine, and inmates in the general population can request temperature checks, the Department of Corrections said in an email Wednesday.

The corrections agency, however, won’t reveal how many inmates have been tested for COVID-19 in prisons operated by the state.

The lack of information “is very troubling,” Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sumayya Saleh told the News Service on Tuesday.

“We know that once the virus is inside, it is very difficult to contain it, and Floridians have a right to know what is happening to 95,000 people in the state,” she said.


Florida election supervisors are asking DeSantis for emergency measures they say will help cope with an anticipated “significant statewide shortage” of poll workers later this year because of the novel coronavirus.

The local officials want the governor to issue an executive order allowing supervisors to designate additional or alternative early voting sites, give counties the option of adding an extra week to the two-week early voting period and allow people to cast ballots at early voting sites through Election Day.

“While we anticipate that some level of in-person voting will continue, we believe that based on our March 17, 2020 election, alternatives or additional voting methods must be made available to counties,” Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones wrote to DeSantis on Tuesday.

The supervisors also want DeSantis to suspend a state law requiring at least one polling place in each precinct.

“This will allow the supervisor the option to relocate or consolidate polling places with early voting sites,” Jones, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections organization, wrote.

But Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terry Rizzo warned that “limiting polling locations could disenfranchise voters in large cities.”

Democrats hailed the effort to expand vote-by-mail and early voting but said it didn’t go far enough and are pushing to do away with in-person voting during the 2020 elections in August and November.

The possibility of all-mail ballots —- which Florida’s supervisors said they are not prepared to carry out this year —- has sparked a partisan divide.

In a Twitter post Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump told Republicans to “fight very hard” against statewide mail-in voting.

“Democrats are clamoring for it,” the president, who acknowledged that he voted by mail in March, wrote. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: The novel coronavirus continued to spread in Florida’s long-term care facilities and prisons, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state climbed each day.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “He called me panicking and scared, and said, ‘Momma, they are leaving us here to die.’ ” —- Natausha Hunt, whose son, Gary Ford, is housed at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, where 30 inmates and six employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

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