A spike in patient admissions for COVID-19 has put Florida hospitals on high alert, with Miami-Dade’s Jackson Health System announcing that it would suspend visitations at many of its facilities beginning Wednesday.
Driven by a highly contagious variant of the virus and the significant share of Floridians who remain unvaccinated, the number of new infections reported weekly by Florida’s health department has increased more than fourfold in a month, from 10,095 cases for the week ending June 17 to 45,449 on Friday.
South Florida hospitals have experienced a similar though less dramatic rise in patients with severe symptoms — pushing them to reinforce preventive measures and to prepare, once again, for a potential surge in the pandemic.
Jackson Health, Miami-Dade’s public hospital system, said the number of COVID-positive patients admitted for overnight care at its three hospitals had ballooned from 66 on July 6 to 139 on Monday, a 111% spike.
At Baptist Health South Florida, there were 303 inpatients with COVID across the system’s 10 hospitals in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties — nearly three times the number of patients in late June.
And at Memorial Healthcare System, which runs six hospitals in South Broward, administrators reported there were 225 patients with COVID on Sunday, compared to 92 patients with COVID on June 19.
Dr. Marc Napp, chief medical officer for Memorial Healthcare, said much of the increase is likely driven by the Delta variant, a highly contagious mutation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the significant share of Floridians who remain unvaccinated.
Younger, unvaccinated patients leading Florida’s surge
Napp said two things stand out about patients being admitted during this most recent surge.
“The overwhelming majority are unvaccinated individuals,” he said, “and they do appear to be younger than before.”
In response to the rise in admissions, Memorial Healthcare has dialed back visitation hours and returned to video conference meetings for administrative staff instead of the in-person gatherings that had recently resumed.
Jackson Health administrators raised the COVID threat level to “high” at its hospitals in South Miami-Dade, Miami’s Civic Center and North Miami Beach on Monday, which means that in-person meetings will be limited to 50% of a room’s capacity and face masks will be required in all non-clinical areas for everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Beginning on Wednesday, Jackson Health will suspend visitations to most of its inpatient units, too, with exceptions for rehabilitation, pediatrics, the neonatal intensive care unit, maternity ward and non-COVID end-of-life cases. Visitors will not be allowed in all adult emergency departments.
Jackson Health administrators scheduled a press conference for Tuesday, but Jackson Health doctors and others have been monitoring the rise — and raising red flags about relaxed social distancing and other preventive measures — for weeks.
At Baptist Health South Florida, the hospital system’s COVID-positive patient census of 303 people also trends heavily to the unvaccinated and middle-aged, said Georgi Pipkin, a spokeswoman.
Baptist Health’s current number of hospitalized COVID patients is about half the number the hospital system saw in July 2020. Pipkin said Baptist Health is not changing its visitation policy, and that social distancing measures have been in place throughout the pandemic and will remain for the foreseeable future.
Florida accounting for 1 in 5 new U.S. COVID cases
The rise in new infections and hospitalizations in Florida reflects a national and global increase, though the Sunshine State is leading most other U.S. states in case counts.
New coronavirus infections rose nearly 70 percent in one week, U.S. public health officials reported on Friday, and nearly every state reported an increase. But the White House said that nearly 1 in 5, or 20% of new COVID cases, were found in Florida, which makes up roughly 6.5% of the U.S. population.
Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist and professor with the University of South Florida in Tampa, has been tracking the pandemic since 2020. Salemi reports findings on his website, and said he is alarmed by the recent rise in cases and hospitalizations.
With new cases and positive test rates rising, he said, hospitalizations are an important indicator of disease severity.
Though Florida’s health department and hospital regulatory agency no longer report new cases, hospitalizations and deaths on a daily basis to the public, the state still shares data on the pandemic with scientists such as Salemi.
He said the number of counties reporting positive test rates of more than 10% has jumped dramatically in a very short time.
“Just three weeks ago, 11 of our 67 counties had a positivity over 10%,” he said. “It’s now 53 out of 67 have a positivity over 10%. It is widespread. Everybody is on the rise.”
Salemi said he also tracks hospitalizations for COVID-19 as reported by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, though he only reviews the data in aggregate for Florida and not by county or facility.
On June 19, he said, Florida had 1,764 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. As of July 17, the number had risen to 4,100 statewide. Salemi said Florida ranks fourth highest in per-capita hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the United States, behind Arkansas, Missouri and Nevada.
“It’s the speed with which this is happening that’s quite scary,” he said.
8 million Floridians not vaccinated
COVID-positive hospitalizations in Florida rose among all age groups from July 1-17, including children, Salemi said.
He attributes the spike in hospitalizations to the delta variant, the relaxation of social distancing and other prevention measures, and the large share of people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“There’s still 8 million people of vaccine-eligible age in Florida who are not vaccinated,” he said. “Almost one million of those are people 65 and older” — the population at highest risk of getting severely ill and dying from the disease.
More than 9.7 million Floridians have completed the two-dose series of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, or have completed Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine. Another 1.5 million have completed their first vaccine dosage, bringing the total number of Floridians who have been fully or partially vaccinated to around 11.3 million, or 59 percent of Floridians who are 12 and older.
Unlike the surges that Florida experienced in 2020, however, the state’s current rise in cases and hospitalizations is still far from reaching crisis levels, said Justin Senior, chief executive of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, a group that represents the state’s public and teaching hospitals.
“It’s nothing like what happened back in January at this point,” Senior said of the current increase, “and it’s nothing like what happened last July.”
He emphasized that Florida hospitals have not suspended elective surgeries or asked the state or federal government to send reinforcements of nurses, respiratory assistants and other healthcare workers.
“What everyone is doing is they’re really being cautious,” Senior said of Florida hospital administrators.
But the pandemic is unpredictable, he added, and that uncertainty has a ripple effect beyond hospitals and other healthcare settings. The resurgent pandemic triggered steep drops in financial markets on Monday and threatened to stymie the economy’s strong recovery.
Stocks swooned from Wall Street to Tokyo on Monday, fueled by fears of the fast-spreading variant. And economic indicators signaled trouble, with the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq all slumping.
Airlines and stocks of other companies that could get hurt the most by the resumption of travel and other restrictions due to COVID-19 saw some of the heaviest losses, similar to the early days of the pandemic in February and March 2020.
Vaccines are preventing serious illness
There is a bright spot in the pandemic, however, that public health experts and hospital administrators urged Floridians not to overlook. The vaccine is highly effective at preventing serious illness and even death, even if more and more new infections are reported among persons who are fully vaccinated.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Verne Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, announced that he has tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. And last week, the New York Yankees were forced to postpone the team’s post-All Star Break home opener against the Boston Red Sox after six players tested positive for COVID-19, including at least three who had been vaccinated.
Senior stressed that no vaccine is 100% effective, and that the vaccines have been highly effective at preventing severe illness and death. “The vaccines really work,” he said.
When a vaccinated person does end up at the hospital for a COVID admission, he said, it is often someone who has underlying health issues.
“A classic example would be a transplant patient who’s taking drugs to suppress their immune system,” he said.
Florida hospital administrators also emphasize that getting the vaccine provides the best protection against catching COVID-19 and being hospitalized or dying. Hospitals are still far from the numbers they saw last year, but they’ve begun to meet and prepare, said Napp of Memorial Healthcare in Broward.
At Memorial’s peak last summer, he said, there were 674 COVID patients in the system’s hospitals, about three times the current number. But if there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, he said, is that it’s unpredictable.
“Any surge starts the way this surge is starting,” Napp said. “There’s no way to know how long it will last or how high it will go. But if we do nothing differently, meaning that if this very infectious virus is out in the community and people don’t change behaviors ... and don’t get vaccinated, it’s a guarantee it will go up.
“Something has to change to bring that back down,” he said. “It’s not going to do it by itself.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.