COVID hospitalizations are falling faster in South Florida than the rest of the state

Cars line up as healthcare workers administer COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations at Dolphin Mall on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
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Once Florida’s COVID-19 epicenter, Miami-Dade County is now seeing the virus retreat from its hospitals at a faster clip than the rest of the state.

The number of people hospitalized from COVID in Florida hospitals has dropped about 17% in the last two weeks, from 3,345 on April 23 to 2,746 on Tuesday, according to state data. In that same time period, the number has dipped 27% in Miami-Dade, from 595 patients two weeks ago to 437 as of Tuesday. Broward County is seeing a similar drop — 23% in the last two weeks.

Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University, said hospitalizations in Miami-Dade still haven’t hit their low point from mid-October. Back then, the seven-day average of COVID patients dipped as low as 328 on Oct. 20, according to county data. But the number has crept down to its lowest point since then.

“Every day I get a little bit happier because the numbers are going down, down, down, so that’s great,” Trepka said. “We’re not down to where we got to the trough in the fall. ... We still have a ways to go.”

Baptist Health South Florida, the region’s largest nonprofit hospital network, has had a 25% drop in COVID patients, down to 150 across the system from 200 in the last two weeks, according to Dr. Yvonne Johnson, chief medical officer at Baptist Health’s South Miami hospital.

Johnson said the hospital was beginning to shift its focus as patients are skewing younger, with a new emphasis on those who recover from the virus but have lingering symptoms, known as “long COVID.”

“So much of our energy in the hospital had been focused on treating the acute illness because we were overwhelmed with patients,” Johnson said. “As we’re seeing a decline in those patients, I think we’ll be able to turn our attention to looking at the longer-term effects of COVID.”

Vaccines are doing their job

Both Johnson and Trepka attributed the dip in Miami-Dade hospitalizations to robust vaccine protection for the county’s older residents. More than 81% of people over the age of 65 have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, Trepka said, and the 55-64 bracket has also been well vaccinated.

“Because we’ve vaccinated such a high proportion of older people, our hospitals are unlikely to be overwhelmed going forward,” Trepka said.

But Trepka cautioned that many people under the age of 55, who are heading to Florida hospitals at a higher rate than before the vaccines arrived, have yet to be vaccinated.

Johnson, the Baptist Health CMO, said the hospital system was beginning to collect data on its hospital patients’ vaccination status.

“It’s been a month or so that [younger people] were really eligible to get a vaccine,” she said.

At the UHealth Tower, the University of Miami’s hospital, and the health clinics run by the university, Dr. Tania Ferreira has been tracking the rate at which fully vaccinated people are admitted with COVID.

Ferreira did not provide specific numbers of cases but said vaccinated people are “much less likely” to present to the emergency department, and, if admitted, “are expected to stay fewer days than those who are not vaccinated.”

“We have not had the death of any fully vaccinated patients admitted to our hospital,” Ferreira said.

COVID hospitalization death rate dropping in Florida

The ratio of people who are hospitalized with COVID compared to those who end up dying from the illness appears to be shifting as the patient pool skews younger.

Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist and data scientist, has been tracking how many Floridians hospitalized with COVID typically die from the disease several days later.

Until recently, those numbers have closely tracked each other, but now there are fewer deaths per hospitalizations, according to Salemi.

Back in September, Salemi said, about 2,600 hospitalized patients would lead to about 78 deaths five to seven days later. Now that same number of hospitalized patients would lead to about 39 deaths, almost half of the fall rate.

“That would suggest everything we would expect as we’re shifting the age distribution of hospitalized patients to younger patients,” he said. “It’s going to result in fewer deaths.”

Salemi, who examines only deaths that are a month old or older, cautioned that the lag between when a death occurs and when it is reported is growing more noticeable, which could be amplifying the effect of the vaccines on the death rate.

About 10% to 20% of deaths reported on a given day actually occurred two months prior, Salemi said, adding that the average lag is about two weeks.

Trepka, the FIU epidemiologist, said she doesn’t find death data to be reliable until it is six weeks old, and said it was too early to examine the death rate from hospitalization.

Another factor that could be playing into a lower death rate: better treatment at hospitals.

Johnson, the Baptist CMO, said there was no question that her physicians better understood how to treat the disease using the medicine available to them.

“I know our clinicians have gained a tremendous amount of expertise over the course of the year,” she said.

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