The Florida House of Representatives. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers
When Florida lawmakers and thousands of state employees, lobbyists and visitors convene next week for a two-month legislative session, more than bills, budgets and gossip will be passed.
COVID-19 and its newest, highly transmissible omicron variant may prove to be a key influencer in the state Capitol complex, which will be open to all with no restrictions in place to reduce the spread of the virus.
“This has huge potential to be a superspreader event,” said state Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach Democrat, in an interview Tuesday. “We’re bringing all these people together from all over the place, and we’re putting them at risk by not at least wearing masks. I’m really disappointed.”
Participants in the 2022 session will have far fewer protections against the spread of COVID than they did in the spring 2021 regular session, when an estimated one-fourth of state senators contracted the virus, Berman said.
Then, access to the Capitol was restricted, lobbyists and visitors provided their testimony remotely from the nearby Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, seating in Senate meeting rooms was limited, weekly testing was required, and the wearing of face masks was strongly encouraged.
State Rep. Allison Tant, a Leon County Democrat, said House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, both Republicans, will be reluctant to institute any COVID rules now that Gov. Ron DeSantis has essentially outlawed them throughout the state. Simpson earlier had contracted COVID as well.
“I don’t see any chance of it. Everybody’s hands are tied,” Tant said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re going into session as if there’s no COVID.”
Tant and Berman, both of whom said they are triple-vaccinated, said they personally know of several recent “breakthrough” cases of COVID among fully vaccinated people who experienced mild symptoms themselves but nevertheless were capable of infecting others.
Tant said her own son, age 23, is among those breakthrough cases. Her entire family is fully vaccinated and did not become infected, she said, but her son, who has underlying vulnerability, picked it up somewhere else despite being immunized.
The same could happen in the Capitol, Tant said, because omicron is so readily transmitted from one to the next. So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say vaccinated people generally experience mild symptoms from omicron, while omicron and delta variant infections in unvaccinated people can be severe, driving up hospitalizations in Florida and elsewhere.
Berman agreed that the governor’s hard line against any mandatory COVID protocols – reinforced by Republican-sponsored laws adopted in a November special legislative session — leaves little or no room for Simpson or Sprowls to behave differently.
“Absolutely, they align with the governor,” Berman said, noting the stark difference this session from last session, when the Senate was governed by COVID protocols recommended by medical experts commissioned by the Senate president to provide guidance.
Spokeswomen for Senate President Simpson and House Speaker Sprowls said both chambers have ordered facilities improvements such as fine-particle air filtration, frequent cleaning, and hand-sanitizing stations; they continue to make testing and vaccinations readily available for legislators and staff; and they encourage the wearing of face masks and safe distancing.
They also said the leaders are “monitoring” the situation, but they declined to explain what actions if any may be on the table.
“The Senate continues to monitor the evolving status of the pandemic and will not hesitate to implement enhanced protocols if necessary,” wrote Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta in a press statement.
“The Florida House leadership continues to monitor the evolving nature of COVID and variants before offering guidelines for the 2022 session,” said House spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian in a similar press statement.
Neither defined what “enhanced protocols” or “guidelines” may be available, given that mandates on wearing face masks, getting tested, getting vaccinated, and showing proof of vaccination are now banned at the state level.
The option of participating in committee hearings remotely has not been offered and seems unlikely.
Berman and Tant urged all eligible people to get vaccinated, to protect themselves and others.
Heading into the legislative sessions starting Tuesday, the CDC reported that Florida’s COVID cases rose to 380,749 in the course of seven days — Dec. 28 to Jan. 3 — the second highest of all states and the District of Columbia. Coming in first is New York, which includes cases from New York City and New York State combined.
Overall, Florida’s COVID-cases add up to 4.36 million — lower only than Texas and California.
New cases – which do not include results of at-home tests – range from 39,797 to 75,902 over the last seven days, after months of lower infection rates.
Meanwhile, the Florida Hospital Association and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida report rising hospitalizations following the initial surge in infections, largely among people who are unvaccinated.
In an interview Tuesday, Justin Senior, CEO of the alliance, with 14 hospital systems and 35 hospitals from Pensacola to Miami, said capacity of regular and intensive-care beds is still sufficient, and supply of personal protective equipment is sufficient, but staffing poses a serious and growing concern.
Average daily hospitalizations of patients with COVID surged in the past two to three weeks from 1,200-1,300 per day to approximately 6,700 per day, Senior said. ICU admissions tripled from about 250 per day to around 750 daily, he said.
Those numbers are far lower than ones seen during the last COVID peak, in August, when ICU admissions were around 3,500 per day. But the high rate of infections suggests hospitalizations will continue to rise.
“When you see these numbers rising, it leads to concerns,” Senior said, stressing that nurses remain in short supply.
And while omicron may prove to be less lethal than prior COVID strains, anyone in a hospital who tests positive for COVID – even if COVID is not their presenting condition — must be treated in special ways, to prevent an outbreak among patients and staff, he explained.
“It’s labor-intensive,” Senior said. “It puts more strain on the staff and the system.”
Senior said there is little that can be done to significantly increase staffing, so clinicians are hopeful the patient load will remain manageable.
“It comes down to muscle,” he said, referring to staff being required to work harder and longer. “Unfortunately, this is the third or fourth time they’re going through this.”
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