Younger patients causing Florida to have among the highest COVID hospital rates in country

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As state and local officials drop mandates on COVID-19 restrictions, the virus continues to circulate throughout Florida, sending increasingly younger people to the hospital at rates that are among the highest in the country.

Overall, the number of people being treated for COVID in Florida hospitals has ticked down over the last two weeks after a slight rise in the beginning of April. About 3,000 Floridians were hospitalized with COVID on Thursday, down about 10% from 3,345 patients on April 23.

But Florida ranks third in the nation for confirmed recent COVID hospital admissions for adults on a per-capita basis, behind only Michigan and Kentucky, according to new federal data analyzed by University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. The admissions are concentrated in patients in the working-age bracket between 30 and 50 years old.

That comes as the rate of hospital admissions for older age groups declines, likely because older people are more likely to be fully vaccinated, Salemi and other experts agreed.

The younger skew for hospitalized COVID patients also follows an earlier rise in COVID cases for working-age people in late March. Public health experts tied that rise in infections to Spring Break tourism.

“When you have an increases in cases, you tend to have an increase in severe illness,” Salemi said.

Jump in hospitalizations among 30- to 50-year-olds

More than a quarter of confirmed COVID hospital admissions in Florida for the week predating May 1 were among people between 30 and 50 years old, compared to 13% in the week predating Jan. 15.

Behind Florida are Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, Connecticut and Colorado.

Florida’s high hospitalization rate for the younger age brackets matches what Dr. David De La Zerda has been seeing at Miami-Dade’s public hospital, Jackson Health System. The intensive care unit leader and pulmonologist said COVID patients are averaging between 30 and 50 years old, many of them healthy and without conditions such as obesity or diabetes.

“I think it’s because they’re the last group to get the vaccine,” De La Zerda said on Thursday. “This age group feels they don’t need a vaccine because they’re not going to die from COVID.”

About 40% of Floridians between 35 and 55 years old have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared to nearly 80% of Floridians over the age of 65, according to Salemi’s dashboard.

From left, ICU Nurse Grace Meatley and Dr. David De La Zerda attend a press conference outside of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The conference was held after Jackson Memorial Hospital administered doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to its healthcare workers.
From left, ICU Nurse Grace Meatley and Dr. David De La Zerda attend a press conference outside of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The conference was held after Jackson Memorial Hospital administered doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to its healthcare workers.

But De La Zerda said even if they are less likely to die from the disease than those older than 65, the recovery can take three to four months before the younger patients even start to feel better, and then they still have lasting effects.

“We have a bunch of post-COVID patients and they’re young but their lungs look like a pulmonary fibrosis,” De La Zerda said. “We have to start looking at transplants.”

Older patients still being hospitalized

While the patients are skewing younger, older patients are still going to the hospital for COVID in Florida at a high rate, Salemi’s analysis found.

The University of South Florida epidemiologist stressed that nearly 1 million people in Florida 65 or older have yet to receive a dose of a COVID vaccine, despite the nearly 80 percent vaccine rates in this group.

“That’s why, until recently, we haven’t seen a big decrease in the rate of admissions for our older age group,” he said.

While people over 70 made up about half of the COVID hospital admissions in the height of the winter surge, that percentage has since dropped to 30%.

“That’s a good sign, because obviously the likelihood of death following hospitalization is highest for people age 70 or above,” Salemi said.

Still, that 30% represents nearly 1,000 admissions in the course of a week for that at-risk category of people over 70.

The age distribution of confirmed COVID admissions in Florida hospitals during the past 7 days, as seen on University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi’s dashboard.
The age distribution of confirmed COVID admissions in Florida hospitals during the past 7 days, as seen on University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi’s dashboard.

Vaccines versus variants

Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the age distribution of Florida’s COVID admissions lines up with the timeline of when vaccines were made available in the state.

“We’re seeing the effect of vaccination among the most highly vaccinated groups,” he said.

More transmissible COVID virus variants, Toner added, are likely contributing to somewhat stubborn hospitalization rates for younger age groups.

Florida leads the country in confirmed variant cases, and scientists in Miami have found evasive mutations cropping up in different lineages with concerning frequency.

Spurred on by those variants, the virus will continue to find people who haven’t received their vaccines yet, Toner said.

Despite Florida’s variant cases and high hospitalization rates among younger age groups, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an emergency order Monday invalidating all remaining local emergency COVID orders.

“Certainly in Florida, I don’t think there are any [public health measures] left to relax,” Toner said. “So probably the most likely driver of the continued cases at this time are the variants.”

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