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Health News Florida
News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Mayhew: COVID Hospitalizations Approaching Peak Levels In Florida

Hospital worker in personal protective equipment including mask, goggles and gown pulls on rubber gloves.
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Mayhew said some hospitals are taking steps including reducing elective surgeries and limiting visitation to handle the spike in COVID patients.

Mary Mayhew with the Florida Hospital Association says the delta variant is sending thousands of mostly-unvaccinated patients into hospitals around the state. Health workers are feeling the strain.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida are reaching some of their highest levels yet during the pandemic.

As of Thursday afternoon, 8,907 people were currently hospitalized with confirmed cases of the disease statewide, according to the latest update from the Florida Hospital Association. The organization announced it will start sharing daily hospitalization updates. The state stopped doing so in June.

Thursday’s numbers are close to the peak the state recorded on July 23, 2020, which was 10,179.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked to FHA president and former state health secretary Mary Mayhew about how hospitals are handling the spike in patients.

How is this surge affecting hospitals differently from the ones we experienced in the winter and last summer?

What we are seeing is a rapid increase in COVID hospitalizations at a rate that was not experienced in the past. We have hospitals in certain areas of the state that have already greatly exceeded their previous peaks. Northeast Florida, in the Jacksonville area, they are between 192% and 150% of their previous peak.

What’s also important to understand is that there is an overall dramatic increase in the need for non-COVID hospitalizations, so hospitals are seeing all of their beds occupied. Electives [elective surgeries] previously, they were reopened at that point [last summer], but we were not seeing anywhere near the demand for other hospital services, so we had more available beds, more staff.

The other important point is the Delta variant is far more infectious than the strain of COVID we've been battling over the last year. We have a much younger population that is now in the hospital. A year ago, if they got COVID, they were likely not requiring hospitalization. You now have 20 year-olds in the hospital, in intensive care and on ventilators. It is beyond what we saw in the past.

And are most patients unvaccinated?

Over 95% of those who are hospitalized [with COVID-19] are unvaccinated. It is burning through unvaccinated populations.

Now, it’s important that people get vaccinated. The problem right now is it takes several weeks for you to be fully protected. So unfortunately, we are going to continue to see an escalation in the number of those hospitalized for COVID.

How are hospitals adapting to handle this?

The one thing that I would absolutely underscore is that in Florida, our hospitals have always been well prepared related to emergencies and their surge plans because of their response to hurricanes. I won't even try to make it sound like there's any analogy there because of the length of time that our hospitals have sustained their response to this public health emergency, but they know how to surge.

They have examined every square inch of their hospitals to determine what can be converted. They are reducing certain services in order to redeploy their staff into the hospital at the bedside. It's a challenge that is further compounded by workforce shortages. So our hospitals are making lots of decisions to restrict electives, curtail visitation, in order to support their ability to respond to this ever-increasing demand.

What are you hearing from health workers? They've been at this for so long.

My heart breaks for our dedicated frontline health care heroes. You know, I’ve said all along, there is no pause button for 24/7 health care. The physical and mental toll that this has taken, but they've been there. They are amazing. And these are difficult jobs and they are experiencing, you know, some very traumatic experiences at the bedside.

We are all trying to help support the environment, the morale, to retain our staff, and then certainly we are looking at ways to continue to recruit in order to support what’s needed at the bedside.

Some staff aren't vaccinated yet, so what can be done to keep everyone safe?

Hospitals we're not seeing transmission of COVID within the hospital, their infection control standards are superior. The issue is we need a healthy workforce who is able to support this increasing demand. So hospitals are, based on their circumstances, based on the individual needs of their workforce, are looking at ways to further encourage the vaccination of their health care staff to get those numbers up.

There certainly are health systems that have mandated vaccinations. Some of those mandates include that if you don't, you have to be tested on a regular basis, you have to wear certain levels of PPE [personal protective equipment] throughout the hospital, so you’re seeing it take different forms all with the same goal: to increase the rate of vaccination among staff in order to have staff available at the bedside and not home in a bed.

Any message to the public?

Certainly to our 20 year-olds and 30 year-olds who haven’t gotten vaccinated, you need to get vaccinated. You absolutely could end up in the hospital this time because of the aggressive nature of this strain of COVID.

We certainly want to make sure people are taking necessary precautions in terms of public settings. Wearing masks as appropriate and distancing, because this strain, the delta variant, is spreading much more rapidly and is having greater complications when you get COVID. So we do need people to be cautious and careful right now.

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