TAMPA, FL — During a news conference on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that counties in Northwest Florida still rebuilding from the hurricane while struggling with the coronavirus pandemic will receive an additional $5.2 million in funding.
The Panhandle was just coming to grips with the devastation from Hurricane Michael when the coronavirus pandemic hit. As a result, the Panhandle is barely treading water when it comes to rebuilding its economy, infrastructure and businesses.
DeSantis predicts Northwest Florida will be one of the first parts of the state to be stricken by a new epidemic that’s just beginning to rear its ugly head: the mental health crisis.
“We’re not even scratching surface,” DeSantis said. “This is going to be catastrophic. There’s going to be an epidemic of mental health problems due to the pandemic.”
Job loss, fear of getting sick, grief over those lost to the pandemic, isolation, anxiety about going back to work or sending children back to school, panic about the ability to pay bills and depression have highlighted the increasing need for mental health services for both adults and children.
Already, area law enforcement agencies are reporting a spike in drug overdoses, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, robberies and thefts and other crimes of desperation.
The $5.2 million will be used to expand telemental health services, rebuild early education facilities and ensure Florida’s youngest learners and their families are ready and able to return to school and work.
“The governor and I have not and will not forget the ongoing needs of the good people of Northwest Florida who continue to work hard to rebuild their communities and their lives in the wake of Hurricane Michael,” said First Lady Casey DeSantis. “With this new funding, we are helping to ensure that our youngest children – who without a doubt have been impacted by the trauma their parents, siblings and neighbors have endured – get the support they need to recover and get back to school and normal lives.”
“Ensuring our youngest children get the services they need is critical to their long-term success in school and in life, and ensuring children have providers who can support those early years so parents can work is important to the well-being of Florida’s families and communities,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran. “I am grateful to the governor and First Lady DeSantis for continuing to prioritize the needs of all our students.”
In the two years since Hurricane Michael devastated the area, more than $832 million in state and federal funding has been directed toward rebuilding and expanding services to help residents get back on their feet physically and emotionally.
One of First Lady DeSantis’ first initiatives ensured telemental health portals were installed in every public school in the hardest-hit counties.
The latest funding, from the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Child Care Disaster Fund through an application submitted by the Florida Department of Education / Office of Early Learning in partnership with the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, will rebuild and enhance the region’s childcare and preschool providers.
In some areas of the region more than half of their childcare and preschool facilities were lost or severely damaged.
The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida administers the School Readiness and Voluntary Prekindergarten Programs for Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties. The grant will allow the ELCNWF to launch Operation Kaleidoscope, a project to address childcare infrastructure and mental health needs of young children linked to the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael which made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.
Approximately $450,000 will be shared with counties neighboring the coalition’s region.
“Our area is still experiencing trauma from Hurricane Michael and our young children are especially vulnerable,” said Suzan Gage, executive director for the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida. “Funding made available from this grant will help bring in programs and services to ensure that recovery continues. Together, with the help of state and local partners, we will ensure that our youngest children thrive despite the obstacles they are facing.”
The grant announced Friday will:
- Provide mental health screening and evaluation services for children, families and providers along with equipment and training to deliver mental health services and trauma-informed care via telehealth, (without regard to insured status) to young children, their parents and teachers as needed.
- Increase child care capacity while working to enhance business knowledge and mitigation strategies in preparation for future disasters.
- Rebuild and resupply childcare facilities including indoor and outdoor environments, supplies, materials, furniture and curricula.
- Provide free developmental and behavioral screenings and connect families wth support and resources.
In the meantime, the Abbott BinaxNOw rapid coronavirus tests that the federal government is providing free to Florida will be a major benefit for schools and nursing homes. Students, teachers, elderly residents and health care workers will know in just 15 minutes whether they have the coronavirus.
The BiNax NOW test from Abbott Laboratories uses a nasal swab to determine within 15 minutes if someone is infected with the coronavirus.
Instead of putting a child with a cough into an isolation room for a day, staff can find out in 15 minutes on-site if the child has the coronavirus or just a cold.
DeSantis demonstrated the ease of the test with a willing staff member during the news conference. Within minutes, Department of Health officials confirmed that the staff member did not have coronavirus.
Another 180,000 BiNax NOW testing kits were sent to senior communities throughout Florida, 100,000 to long-term care facilities and 60,000 to various testing sites.
The governor said Florida will receive around 400,000 testing kits per week for a total of 6.4 million testing kits.
“And we’re getting them entirely free,” he added. “At a cost of $100 a pop, that’s a major savings.”
The availability of the rapid BiNax tests may result in a bump in coronavirus positivity rates as more Floridians opt for the easy 15-minute test.
However, the Florida Department of Health said results in Florida have begun to stabilize again.
On Thursday, data reported to the Agency for Health Care Administration showed that the number of coronavirus positive patients that are currently hospitalized is down more than 70 percent since July.
As posted on the Agency for Health Care Administration’s hospitalization dashboard, there are 2,142 current hospitalizations with a primary diagnosis of coronavirus.
Additionally, Thursdays’s statewide positivity rate for new cases fell below the 5 percent threshold (4.57 percent).
And Thursday was the 56th straight day below a 10 percent positivity rate of new cases. On Thursday, 70,499 Floridians were tests and 67,595 received negative results.
As of Oct. 8,728,921 people tested positive for the coronavirus in Florida since the pandemic was declared in March. Of those, 4,789,241 were negative and 15,186 died.
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