MIAMI -- As cases of the coronavirus continue to surge through South Florida, the pandemic is overwhelming some of the states’ safety nets, hitting law enforcement, social services and healthcare workers in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
As the statewide death toll hit 195 on Saturday, the Broward Sheriff’s Office Saturday said it had lost one of its veteran deputies to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Deputy Shannon Bennett, 39, died Friday night after being admitted to the hospital on March 27, said Sheriff Gregory Tony.
“This is a new enemy we can’t even see. We know it’s there and real and it’s impacting all of us,” Tony said during a news conference.
Later in the day, the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office announced the coronavirus-related death of one of its own, Sgt. Diaz Ayala.
On Saturday, Florida reported 1,277 additional cases and 25 new deaths, for a total of 11,545 confirmed cases.
Miami-Dade, with 3,890 confirmed cases, is the epicenter of Florida’s outbreak. By comparison, Broward has 1,765 confirmed cases and Palm Beach County has 954, according to Department of Health figures.
Among the victims of the global pandemic were two passengers whose bodies were taken off the Coral Princess cruise ship in PortMiami on Saturday.
The pleasure cruise, which left San Antonio, Chile, on March 5, is among several passenger ships overrun by the virus, and then shunned at different ports.
The Coral Princess had been turned away from Port Everglades earlier Saturday, as the U.S. Coast Guard said it needed to approve the ship’s plan for disembarking sick passengers.
Princess Cruises said in a statement Thursday that seven passengers and five crew members tested positive after the ship dropped off samples in Barbados on March 31.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief, said he didn’t think it was right to keep the ship at sea.
“We had some people that were dying on that ship,” he said. “We had to get them here as soon as possible.”
Gimenez said five people were evacuated and hospitalized and 65 passengers and crew members will remain on the ship under quarantine, after they were deemed unfit to travel because of symptoms or their medical conditions. That leaves more than 1,800 travelers and crew slated to leave the vessel.
“Most of the passengers on that ship are not ill,” Gimenez said.
Those disembarking will be required to wear masks and self-isolate for 14 days once home. Most will head to Miami International Airport and wait in closed-off terminals for charter flights arranged by cruise companies. Some will board commercial flights still serving destinations at an airport with severely reduced service.
The operation is part of a larger evacuation already underway at the idled port, where docked cruise ships have been unloading about 250 to 500 crew members each day to board charter flights home. Most of those are heading to the Philippines, Gimenez said.
Shannon Kilbane, a passenger on the Coral Princess from California, said passengers hadn’t been allowed on land since March 13.
“We have gone through this drill several times where we’ve packed our bags,” Kilbane said. “I just want to get off the ship, on a plane and home to my family.”
The mayor said he was not aware of other ships heading toward Miami and cautioned PortMiami may not be available for future dockings if the county’s hospital system becomes strained by coronavirus cases.
“We have capacity here in Miami-Dade” now, he said.
Even as Miami-Dade County has become a top statewide trouble spot for the virus, it’s opening new testing sites.
On Sunday it will be opening a drive-through coronavirus testing site at the South Dade Government Center for anyone over 18 years old who shows symptoms or meets other federal guidelines for testing for COVID-19.
The center, at 10710 SW 211 St, in Cutler Bay, will offer 300 appointments per day beginning Sunday. Those who wish to be tested must make an appointment by calling 305-499-8767, the same number used for the county’s Hard Rock Stadium testing center.
The new testing site raises the number of locations in Miami-Dade to at least eight, including sites at Marlins Park in Little Havana, Charles Hadley Park in Miami, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Amelia Earhart Park in Hialeah, the Miami Beach municipal parking lot at 46th Street and Collins Avenue, and the Doris Ison Health Center in South Miami-Dade.
One of the cruel ironies of the coronavirus is that it’s punishing hospitals just when they’re needed the most.
One week after asking non-clinical workers to use their paid leave to help shore up hospital finances sapped by the pandemic, leaders of Jackson Health System announced pay cuts for executives and managers and furloughs for other workers who do not provide patient care.
Carlos Migoya, chief executive of Miami-Dade’s public hospital, announced the austerity measures in a memo to employees on Friday afternoon. He said the cuts are needed to help make up for significant financial losses stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our revenues have been devastated by the cancellation of so much non-emergency patient care, and it’s not clear when federal relief dollars will arrive or whether they will fill the gap,” Migoya said in the memo.
Beginning Sunday, the hospital system’s executive team will take a 20% salary cut “until further notice,” Migoya said. The rest of the management team, which includes those with director titles and above, will take a 10% salary cut.
Mandatory furloughs will begin later this month for non-clinical workers, he said. “We will not furlough nurses or physicians because they will be deployed into the crisis response,” Migoya added.
With an annual budget of more than $2 billion, Jackson Health employs more than 11,000 people at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and jailhouse clinics in Miami-Dade.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a statewide stay-at-home order, is also expected to cut into Jackson Health’s tax revenues as bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses are shuttered. The safety net hospital system receives about $500 million a year in taxpayer funding through property taxes, sales taxes and general revenue from the county.
The economic pain of the coronavirus has been exacerbated by the failure of the state’s unemployment system.
On Saturday, Florida officials were forced to begin accepting paper unemployment applications as the online filing system, known as CONNECT, has been riddled with error messages and glitches caused in part by increased demand.
A key element of CONNECT, the state’s call center, which issues PIN numbers, has been overwhelmed, with some people waiting up to 12 hours on hold — if they’re able to connect at all.
As a workaround, the department had to create paper applications, which did not previously exist.
The CONNECT website, which then-Gov. Rick Scott spent $77 million to launch in 2013, has had problems from the start. Auditors flagged the problems in their 2015, 2016 and 2019 reports, but neither Scott nor Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office in January 2019, apparently fixed the problems.
“$77 million? Someone should go to jail over that,” tweeted Republican Party of Florida Chairman and Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.
On Friday, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, called for the department’s executive director, Ken Lawson, to resign, and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, called for an audit of his department. Neither DeSantis nor Lawson responded to a request for comment.
It’s unclear how long the disruptions caused by the coronavirus might last, but some agencies are planning for the long haul.
In a video address from his home, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie on Friday predicted that the district would likely have to continue its online learning program for the rest of the school year, which is slated to end June 2.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran this past week advised the state’s superintendents to extend school closures from April 15 to May 1. South Florida superintendents, including Runcie, followed the recommendation.
But on Friday, he suggested the cornavirus could even up-end those plans.
“We recognize that the pandemic will continue to grow and anticipate more challenging conditions emerging over the next several weeks,” he said. “Consequently, it is reasonable for all of us to plan for continuing distance-learning through the end of the school year,” he said.
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