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LP will raise COVID-19 incentive pay

LAKE PLACID — The Town Council gave the go ahead to Town Administrator Phil Williams on Monday night to increase incentive payments to employees who get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The council voted unanimously to up the payment from $50 to $150; those who have already been paid the $50 incentive will receive an additional $100 and employees with new vaccines will receive $150.

The council also eyed news from Williams that the federal government could repay the town what it spends to incentivize employees to take the vaccine.

At least 15 of the more than 40 town employees have received the vaccine and the $50 incentive payment. More town workers could become vaccinated now that the Federal Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in late August, he said.

Williams, who has lost eight relatives to the breath-stealing virus, also told the council that the town could receive as much as $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan money, which can be used to refund the town for financial incentives paid to vaccinated employees.

Williams outlined for the Highlands News-Sun an action plan to ensure more staff members take the vaccine and are protected against the virus. He said he wants to keep his staff and their families healthy.

The council rejected Williams’ other suggestions, which he stated in his agenda item: “Town council also has an option of requiring employees who are not vaccinated to pay a portion of their future health insurance since they are likely to cost more,” he wrote. “Only employees who are vaccinated will be considered for promotions or job transfers within the town.”

Council members Greg Sapp and Charlie Wilson believed those options to be inappropriate and invasive.

“I’m not going to go with the 10% penalty on the health insurance; it’s not appropriate at all,” Sapp said. “It’s about personal choice. I’m vaccinated; it’s a choice I made.”

Wilson considers vaccination a private decision.

“I’m not their doctor, none of us is their doctor,” he said. “I’m in agreement with the incentivizing.”

Council Member Debra Anne Worley doesn’t want to force workers to take the shot, but she admits the virus has cost the town in productivity.

“We don’t have staff because they refuse to do that, and it’s costing our town money,” she said.

The town could receive up to $1.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. According to Williams, Highlands County could receive as much as $20 million; the county would administer the funds to Lake Placid.

“The state is handling ours because we’re a smaller agency. We’re going to get approximately $1.2 million,” Williams told the council. “We’re looking at what we can spend it on.”

U.S. Treasury guidance for the new law allows for the reimbursement of vaccination incentive reward programs.

“The county has a consultant … to figure out exactly what they can spend money on and can’t spend money on,” Council Member Ray Royce said. “I think it would be great that we stay in touch with the county and ride their coattails as they figure out what they can do.”

Lake Placid is not alone in its efforts to vaccinate employees.

Tulsa City, Oklahoma, council members this month approved a proposal to spend almost $1.8 million in federal virus relief program on a campaign encouraging employees to get vaccinated. They will also seek reimbursement through the American Rescue Plan.

The city’s American Rescue Plan Working group pitched giving employees who are or who get fully vaccinated $250. They must do so by Oct. 15 to receive the stipend.

Faces behind the masks

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series about those who are behind the masks fighting COVID-19.

SEBRING — The delta-charged wave of COVID-19 has overwhelmed healthcare workers with the sheer volume of sick patients. In hospital settings, COVID has affected every person who works in the there from doctors to housekeeping, cafeteria staff to chaplains. Everyone has had to modify the way they perform their duties in some respect. It is probably safe to say that everyone is ready for this wave to ebb.

Director of Pastoral Care for AdventHealth Heartland, Linda Lynch, said while the new strain is, well, a new strain for everyone, her team is ready to serve. To say everyone in hospitals is tired would be an understatement; Lynch and her fellow chaplains are ready and willing to be a lights in the darkness.

In a recent interview with Lynch, she said she was probably as tired as everyone else was.

“I like to say weary, but OK. When I say well, I am exhilarated in a certain sense, with the privilege and opportunity that is mine as never before,” she said. “To care for so many simultaneously, it’s absolutely overwhelming, but exhilarating, at the same time.”

Lynch said she and her other chaplains are available for patients and colleagues 24/7, just like the patient care teams. She explained a little about how her job has changed from a year ago.

“In a manner of speaking, it’s more of the same, but it is more than ever intense ... the intensity of need,” she said.

Before, many patients would be in for short stays before being discharged.

“These are not those days,” Lynch said. “It’s a different care.”

There is no judgment regarding vaccine status. Lynch said, up until the interview with the Highlands News-Sun, vaccine status had never come up in a conversation.

“All of the persons I speak to know that they are in need of what they will be finding here, which is the medical care and attention that helps them face their current ordeal and challenge,” she said. “Just as with other patients and their situations, chaplains are never asking how did you get in this situation? We meet people where they are, care for them as they are, and encourage them as best we may.”

Lynch said that despite the pandemic, she sees rays of beauty shining through. She loves to see the way patients are cared for, both physically and spiritually, by the interdisciplinary teams. She said the staff are “loving our patients in the living and in the dying.” She said the teams help each other.

It has been profound to her that everyone is doing what they were meant to do and wouldn’t trade that and where they were working.

“These are our own people loving each other” in the close-knit communities of Highlands and Hardee counties. “It’s really a view of community. These are the people we see shopping, people who we love. We must do this,” Lynch said.

The volume of patients may have increased for the chaplains, but the job description hasn’t changed. The way they minister may look differently from the Personal Protection Equipment to prayers via electronics. Some patients cannot ask for a chaplain, so their families do.

Lynch said they do whatever they can to keep the patients, caregivers and themselves safe. That includes gearing up with personal protection equipment (PPE). With helmet, gowns, gloves and goggles, she said it reminds her of St. Paul’s teaching in the Bible about putting on the whole armor of God.

“Chaplains have to put on the whole armor to go in just like all of the nurses and docs do. That PPE is not a joke. Putting it on is in a kind of way like to put on a space suit to be very protective of the patient and their wellbeing,” she said.

Lynch said the chaplains always have had to don PPEs in some isolation rooms but never to this extent. She said the COVID cases seem different this year in their severity. She is noticing it hitting family groups where she didn’t recall the virus doing that last year.

With only 24 hours in the day, Lynch said she is not really working more than prior to the pandemic, but she is still “working” when she is home.

“When I say putting in more hours, I think the other chaplains would agree with me on this, I take more situations home with me than I have ever before and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” she said. “My prayers do not turn off when I leave these doors.”

She continues to pray for those in need because she feels they are her friends and neighbors. Restricted visits and final visits when a loved one dies are handled very carefully, Lynch said. When the end comes for a patient, Lynch said there is nothing but sorrow left. She said part of being a chaplain was to “honor the sorrow,” to not be in denial about it and to “reignite faith,” Lynch said.

“That’s our mission, here at AdventHealth, to extend the healing ministry of Christ,” she said.

Lynch explained chaplains are there for those who are at a “place of death and sorrow and loss.” She explained that they are called to be a light in the darkness for others. Lynch knows she was called to be a chaplain but during this pandemic has had a real Esther moment, “for such a time as this.”

After work, Lynch walks in the evening, heading toward the lake.

“I see the waves. I see all the ordinary, but it changes everything for me; it lets me know why I’m here, why I ever was here. I wasn’t born here; I came here,” she said. “‘God, you brought me here. Yes, love for such a time as this, for such a need as this. So that you would know I’m with you. To be with my people. These are my people. These are your people, my people, our people.’”

Thankfully patients and staff have chaplains to turn to and to pray with. Who do the chaplains have to turn to?

“I could say the whole team. When I say the whole team, there is such TLC from our chaplain group, one to the other. We do, we take care of each other, acknowledging that this falls hard upon us, but from within the team, and then within the larger hospital, family, our own administration. Oh, my goodness, the TLC, they take care of me and the entire team.”

In addition to the inhouse support from team members and administration, Advent’s Highlands and Hardee County hospitals are under the umbrella group of West Florida Division of AdventHealth, which includes the Tampa hospitals. Lynch said they have counselors available for them 24/7.

Highlands District sticks with voluntary mask policy


SEBRING — While the wearing of face masks continues to be voluntary in Highlands District Schools, School Board Attorney John McClure addressed the state’s ongoing school mask debate at a recent board meeting.

McClure said he had received a petition from Miami-Dade County challenging the rule adopted by the Department of Health regarding this matter.

“I don’t say I have any comment pro or con on the matter,” he said. “I am simply reporting to you that it continues.”

Miami-Dade County is one of about 14 districts that have implemented a face mask mandate, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that seeks to bar school mask mandates.

On Aug. 6, the Florida Department of Health published an emergency rule to govern the control of COVID-19 in schools through protocols that do not violate Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. {span}The rule directs that any COVID-19 mitigation actions taken by school districts comply with the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding the masking of their children.{/span}

“I fully expect it won’t be resolved until it gets, very likely, to the Supreme Court, and I think it will get there very quickly and they will get it resolved. They will know a little better what the rules are and what we are supposed to do, where we go,” McClure said.

Speaking to the School Board, he said, “It is your responsibility as elected officials to determine how your school system is going to be run.”

The State has done a lot of positive things for this district and many others in allowing local control, McClure said, but some people believe politics are getting involved in decision making.

School Board Member Donna Howerton said there were some people who are pushing for a workshop.

The School Board has local control on some things, but maybe not on what they want to address in a workshop, she said.

Howerton asked McClure, “If they pit one parent against another, is the district looking at a liability? While the Department of Education says it can’t cut funding due to a district mask mandate, does the Highlands District want to get into that battle?”

McClure said, “There are many people who have strong opinions on both sides and they don’t want to meet in the middle.

“It is very clear that the delta variant is quite contagious and is running through our school system now.”

Howerton said the district is doing what it can do to keep its doors open and keep teachers in.

McClure said, “You are not going to make everybody happy. I am sorry, it is not going to happen.”

The district would not get anywhere by having a big workshop on it, with everyone citing different experts, he said.

In South Florida, a group of parents has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a decision by Palm Beach County school officials to require students to wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.