- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Dec. 29

The Orlando Sentinel on making Florida inmates a priority for coronavirus vaccination:

Had he lived, Lawrence Carter should have been one of the first in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. He was 76 years old, diabetic, had one leg and was confined to a wheelchair.



But Carter was an inmate at the Seminole County jail. In the state’s view, he would have deserved the same vaccine priority as a healthy 21-year-old:

None.

When it comes to protecting prisoners from COVID-19, Florida’s attitude has been almost criminal from the start. That’s not changing now that vaccines are rolling out.

The first batch is going to healthcare providers and people 65 and older. You could quibble whether the age requirement should have been 75 and older, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. But overall, the initial prioritizing makes sense.

The following phase is going to “essential workers” like law enforcement, school staff and grocery workers. That also makes sense, but it excludes one of the state’s most vulnerable groups.

About 80,000 people are incarcerated in prisons and jails. They are roughly four times as likely to contract COVID-19 as the general population.

Some prisoners haven’t been convicted of anything and are just awaiting trial. Carter was arrested last November on a drug possession charge.

His case was complicated by a potential parole violation. Legal maneuvering and the suspension of court proceedings during the pandemic kept his case from being adjudicated.

Carter died in August of COVID-19 during an outbreak at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford.

“All he wanted to do was come home to me, that’s all he wanted to do,” his fiance, Christine Deleo told the Sentinel. “I had asked … if there was any way we could get him out of there because of the COVID. I knew he was going to get sick.”

Prisons are coronavirus incubators. The problem is, most people who live there have committed crimes. As he devised his state’s vaccine plan, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis undoubtedly spoke for many.

“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” he said.

That may sound righteous, but it’s a miscarriage of justice. Criminal sentencing does not include being unnecessarily exposed to a virus that’s infected almost 82 million people worldwide.

Prisoners are literally at the mercy of the state, and the state has a moral obligation to keep them safe.

Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t popped off like Polis, but he’s been typically evasive when it comes to coronavirus and prisons. The state has no known plan for distributing vaccines to inmates or prison staff.

The Florida Department of Corrections has applied with the Florida Department of Health for a vaccination program. The DOC will “receive further direction on distribution from DOH as supplies become available,” a spokesperson said in an email to the Sentinel.

Supplies are becoming available, but there’s been no direction from DOH.

The state’s draft plan, released in October, detailed a three-phase vaccination program. Prisoners were listed as a “critical population” but were not mentioned in any of the phases.

Law enforcement was listed in the first phase of distribution. Many people who work in correctional facilities are law-enforcement officers, but they were not specifically mentioned in the draft.

The confusion is not surprising. Florida is one of 11 states that have not included prisoners in any phase of vaccine distribution, according to the COVID Prison Project.

The laissez-faire approach had consequences long before researchers developed a vaccine. COVID-19 overwhelmed jails to the point prisoners were wearing tube socks as masks.

Cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers were scarce. Mask mandates and other safety protocols were haphazardly enforced.

In mid-December, there were 50 positive cases per 1,000 people in Florida’s general population. In its prison population, there were 184 cases per 1,000 people.

Florida has the third-highest prison population, but it leads the nation with 189 deaths. Only three other states have more than 100 prisoner deaths.

DeSantis’ entire vaccine strategy is based on keeping the death toll as low as possible. That’s why instead of vaccinating teachers and police, he’s prioritized people 65 and older.

“The problem is people that are 73, 74 would be in the back of the line for a young 21-year-old worker who’s considered `essential,’” DeSantis said in a press conference last week. ”That doesn’t, I think, make sense.”

What also doesn’t make sense is not including prisoners in the next phase of vaccinations.

They are not essential for society to function. But in an ethical society it’s essential to protect people like Lawrence Carter from dying.

Even if they are prisoners.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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Dec. 26

USA Today Network Florida on demanding more transparency from Gov. Ron DeSantis:

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it clear he has no interest in shutting down Florida again to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor, as many will agree, believes Floridians should have freedom and practice personal responsibility - and government shouldn’t tell us whether to wear masks, social distance and how businesses should operate and at what capacity.

The rationale goes: Adults should make decisions about their health (and the health of others) based on the information in front of them.

But what happens when the information we’re given is incomplete? Or when the person leading us lacks transparency, as is the case with the DeSantis administration?

From instructing local health officials not to talk about the virus leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel has reported, to his refusal to release public reports that contradict his approach to the virus, the DeSantis administration seems hell bent on not letting the public see a complete picture of the pandemic in Florida.

Are we letting the data and science dictate political action, or is politics directing data?

This goes beyond the accusations that fired Department of Health data scientist Rebekah Jones has made that the DeSantis administration has been “falsifying” information - accusations we have not been able to independently verify.

To the dismay of DeSantis’ critics, there’s no smoking gun - no stash of positive coronavirus cases hidden in a basement - but there’s plenty of fire, as has been outlined in months of reporting by the USA TODAY Network and other news outlets.

Most recently, we have a fight to force the governor to release the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s weekly reports about Florida (The Task Force advised that information be made public). His refusal to do so prompted a lawsuit by the Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel.

One of those reports, created on Dec. 6 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, calls for Florida and other states to step up their efforts, such as reducing capacity or shutting down indoor dining and bars. That goes directly against DeSantis’ approach of allowing the state to remain open as the country enters its darkest period of the pandemic.

In November, DeSantis said some of the recommendations by the Task Force, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, were “problematic.” Perhaps they are “problematic” because they disagree with his laissez faire approach to the pandemic.

It appears the lawsuit has put enough pressure on the governor’s office, as it released two Task Force reports this month. The Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 reports warned Florida was moving into the “yellow zone” for test positivity. The state moved into the “red zone,” along with many others, a month later.

If DeSantis wants to keep the state open, and there are valid reasons why he would do so (i.e. to preserve jobs, especially in the service and tourism industries, and to prevent more Floridians from falling below the poverty line), he cannot shield his administration from criticism by blocking information.

The White House reports are just one example. Here are others:

DeSantis instructed county-level spokespeople of the Department of Health to stop issuing public statements about COVID-19 until after the Nov. 3 election, the Sun Sentinel reported in an investigation this month.

As he brushed aside the state’s top scientists, many from our own university system, who advocated for more restrictions, his own Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees disappeared from the public eye after saying in an April news conference that social distancing might be needed for another year. Rivkees’ COVID-19 task force, which met once in March, has fizzled, the Sentinel reported.

And DeSantis’ spokesman Fred Piccolo Jr., whom taxpayers pay more than $154,000 annually, has tweeted false or misleading claims: that COVID-19 is less deadly than the flu and masks are only marginally effective (while the flu has killed up to 60,000 Americans every year since 2010, COVID has killed more than 270,000 so far in 2020).

His administration withheld information about cases in schools, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, only changing course after legal pressure from the media, family members and advocacy groups.

And, beyond that, there are just weird things happening in DeSantis’ office. Case in point is the hiring of a little known sports blogger and Uber driver who moonlights as an anti-mask conspiracy theorist to do data analysis for COVID-19 and other projects.

When the pandemic is over, we will see how governors truly fared in controlling COVID-19. We still have at least months left in this pandemic. DeSantis still has time to change course and Floridians must demand more transparency from him.

Online: https://www.floridatoday.com/

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Dec. 24

The Tampa Bay Times on reforming Florida’s mental health care system:

The statewide grand jury got it right: Florida’s mental health system is “a mess” - underfunded, disjointed and sorely lacking in scope and scale for the Floridians who need it. This assessment is hardly new, but it reflects gaping holes in the safety net that are increasingly risks to public safety. The report should be a wake-up call for the Legislature to address this festering problem.

The grand jury issued the report Dec. 10 as part of its continuing examination of school safety issues raised in the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 students and faculty members were killed. The accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, had been treated for mental health issues, but authorities missed a number of red flags because of what critics contend is a patchwork of services that doesn’t ably care for troubled Floridians or society at large.

The grand jury wrote in broad terms about a state mental health system that was plagued by funding, leadership and service deficiencies that “tend to turn up everywhere like bad pennies.” The report describes an ad hoc system across the state, where services are delivered in various fashion by public and private providers alike, in what amounts to a mental health labyrinth that is short on results and accountability.

“This grand jury has received a great deal of evidence and testimony regarding financial deficiencies, conflicts between various agencies over information sharing and privacy, inadequate or inefficient provision of services and a number of other serious problems,” the report notes. The jurors wrote that “it is clear to us that inadequately addressed mental health issues have the peculiar potential to spiral out over time into criminal acts and violent behavior resulting in serious injury and loss of life.” And while acknowledging that the problems were systemic and large, the jurors said “we cannot overstate the importance of addressing these deficiencies.”

The grand jury called on the Legislature to appoint a commission to examine the mental health system in Florida, noting that any worthwhile reforms would require legislative appropriations and perhaps statutory changes to the delivery of care. It suggested that the many players involved be represented on the panel - from law enforcement and school districts to mental health professionals - and that the commission include both insiders who understand Florida’s existing bureaucracy and fresh voices who have creative ideas for reinventing the wheel.

These sorts of commissions are empaneled all too often as stalling tactics by politicians who are uninterested in making the tough decisions themselves. But a task force on mental health would call attention to an issue facing virtually every aspect of society. It could bring government and nonprofits together to renew their sense of mission, and act as a gut-check on disparities in services across the state. A legislatively-appointed panel would also give the Senate president and House speaker a vested interest in producing tangible results. Gov. Ron DeSantis has also made mental health services a priority and would likely be a powerful ally in improving Florida’s continuum of care. Lawmakers should tackle this challenge in the spring’s legislative session.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com

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