South Florida hospitals see rise in young patients as COVID resurgence gains steam

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As Florida’s pandemic resurgence gains steam, with cases and hospitalizations rising sharply in July, South Florida hospitals report a startling rise in younger patients with COVID-19, with many of them needing intensive care and nearly all of whom are not vaccinated.

At Memorial Healthcare System, Dr. Aharon Sareli, chief of critical care medicine, said the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 made up nearly a quarter of the total 1,650 inpatients across the system’s six hospitals on Friday. Sareli said 420 patients with the disease were hospitalized, with 55 in the intensive care units.

Only one person was vaccinated out of those in the ICU, and 96% of the more than 420 COVID patients were unvaccinated, he said.

Memorial Health’s Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood had seven patients with COVID-19, said a hospital spokeswoman, who added that patients who didn’t need to be admitted overnight are also presenting at the emergency room with symptoms, such as fever, cough and fatigue.

At Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, there were 17 patients with COVID-19 on Friday, including six in the ICU and one who needed a ventilator, said Dr. Marcos Mestre, vice president and chief medical officer.

Cars line up at Amelia Earhart Park’s COVID-19 testing site in Hialeah, Florida, on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Cars line up at Amelia Earhart Park’s COVID-19 testing site in Hialeah, Florida, on Friday, July 30, 2021.

Mestre said Nicklaus Children’s had a total of 17 inpatients with COVID-19 in June.

“In July,” he said, “we’ve already seen 60, with another day to go.”

About half of the patients were under 12, Mestre said, and the rest were older and eligible for the vaccine. But none of the patients with COVID-19 at Nicklaus Children’s on Friday were vaccinated.

In fact, Mestre said, “We have not yet admitted a child 12 and over who’s been vaccinated and required hospitalization.”

Mestre said most of the patients admitted to Nicklaus Children’s in July were infected with the predominant strain of the virus, the highly transmissible delta variant, which made up more than 80% of samples collected by the CDC during the two weeks that ended July 17.

He emphasized that most children who get COVID-19 do not need hospitalization. “Only about 1% if you look at the national numbers,” he said.

“Most do well,” Mestre said. He added that the highest risk factor for severe illness, such as respiratory distress, tends to be obesity.

Because many older Americans were prioritized for vaccination, and the elderly run a higher risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19, many of the patients hospitalized in July have trended younger than those who were admitted last year.

Juana Mejia, the COVID ICU nurse manager at Memorial Hospital Miramar, said the hospital chain is seeing patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s with COVID.

Juana Mejia, a COVID ICU nurse, speaks during a press conference at Memorial Hospital Miramar on Friday, July 30, 2021. Mejia explained how the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across South Florida has increased hospitalizations at Memorial Hospital Miramar.
Juana Mejia, a COVID ICU nurse, speaks during a press conference at Memorial Hospital Miramar on Friday, July 30, 2021. Mejia explained how the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across South Florida has increased hospitalizations at Memorial Hospital Miramar.

“It is very sad to have someone dying in the ICU by themselves without the touch of their family, without seeing a loved one,” Mejia said. “And the only person or the only place that they see is a face of a stranger, of a nurse.”

New cases have skyrocketed in Florida, from about 2,300 a day in early July to more than 17,000 on Wednesday and Thursday — nearing the highest single-day counts of Florida’s pandemic in January, when daily cases on Jan. 7 and Jan. 8 topped more than 19,000.

As cases have surged in July, doctors and hospital administrators have reported more patients with rapid progression of the disease.

‘It just went boom.’ ICUs are being overwhelmed with younger — and sicker — patients

Hospitalizations have risen rapidly, too. On June 19, Memorial Health had fewer than 90 patients with COVID-19, Sareli said. On Friday, the number of patients, 420, was more than half the number Memorial Health saw at the peak of the surge in July 2020, when 672 patients were hospitalized.

Sareli said he has not seen a peak to the current surge yet.

“It’s an evolving situation and it’s increasing on a daily basis,” he said.

Sareli added that the current surge is fueled by changes in behavior, relatively low vaccination rates, and a variant of the coronavirus that’s very transmissible and currently makes up the majority of samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cars line up at Tropical Park’s COVID-19 testing site in Miami on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Cars line up at Tropical Park’s COVID-19 testing site in Miami on Friday, July 30, 2021.

He said that as businesses reopened, travel resumed and many returned to pre-pandemic social activities, people became lax about wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing.

“We as a population have let our guard down as the prevalence of COVID went down,” he said. But he emphasized that the vaccine is the most effective way to reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19.

Sareli said Memorial Health is prepared for the resurgence, with sufficient numbers of ventilators and protective gear for workers. Hospital administrators have also been in touch with the American Hospital Association and local government in case more supplies are needed, he said.

“We are committed to keeping the staff safe in all areas,” he said. “Our stocks are good.”

Most hospitals are reluctant to mandate vaccines for workers. That may soon change.

Sareli is advising everyone to get vaccinated and to continue to wear masks and social distance. Even if vaccinated individuals infected with the delta variant can contract and transmit the virus to others, he said, the vaccine greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.

“Vaccines aren’t bulletproof armor,” he said. “Really, the thing for everyone to remember is what can we do to keep ourselves safe, our family safe, our population safe. It really comes down to two critical elements.”

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