Florida COVID-19 Surge Concerning Hospitals & Public Health Experts
Florida has emerged as a hotspot in the current resurgence of COVID-19 infections across the country. According to the White House nearly one in five new cases nationwide, last week, were diagnosed in Florida.
The increase in infections is putting a strain on local hospital systems and raising concerns among public health experts as a new school year is about to begin and public school districts are dropping mask mandates under pressure from parents and government officials.
The current resurgence of new coronavirus infections has prompted some hospital systems like NCH in Collier County, Jackson Memorial in Miami-Dade and Memorial Healthcare System in Broward to impose hospital visitation restrictions. On July 21, NCH hospitals began restricting patients to one visitor.
Lee Health hasn’t imposed new visitor restrictions to the health system’s five hospitals, but Medical Director in the Emergency Department at Cape Coral Hospital Dr. Timothy Dougherty said Thursday on WGCU’s “Gulf Coast Life” they’re considering it due to the increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“Just a few weeks ago we were down to as little as 20 COVID patients admitted to the hospital and as of yesterday (July 21) we rapidly increased,” said Dougherty.
“We’re up to close to 140 and we’re not seeing just respiratory cases, but also GI related COVID illnesses also that require treatment.”
Dr. Dougherty said the current increase includes younger patients in the 20-25-year-old age demographic as well as elderly patients.
“I think we’re at the level that, right now, as an organization, we’ve restarted our incident briefings to discuss this on a daily/weekly basis to be prepared for what potentially we hope doesn’t happen,” Dougherty said.
Following comments from CDC officials that current conditions represent a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dougherty said helping people overcome vaccine hesitancy is critical.
“Right now, we have 47% of Florida is vaccinated, yet if you look around almost 100% of the people are not wearing masks. So, we’re sort of on an honor system that if you didn’t get vaccinated that you would still protect yourself to protect others and that clearly isn’t happening,” said Dougherty.
One way Dougherty says to help people overcome vaccine hesitancy is to remind people that COVID-19 is anything but a benign disease and that surviving a serious infection doesn’t necessarily mean a return to health.
“There are plenty of patients that came into the hospital healthy that have to go home on oxygen or have damaged their heart that have to be on medications for a long period of time until their heart rebounds. There are patients that come to the hospital that end up on dialysis,” said Dougherty.
“So, it’s more than just, ‘Am I going to survive the disease?’ It’s ‘Am I going to survive this disease without any long-term complications that are going to affect me for the rest of my life?’”
When it comes to breakthrough infections among people who are fully vaccinated, Dr. Dougherty said those cases have tended to involve older patients or people with some other risk factor leading to a weakened immune system. He notes, however, that these are anecdotal observations, since much remains unknown about the more virulent and more contagious Delta variant that’s fueling the current surge. The CDC reports the Delta variant has been responsible for about eight of every ten new cases.
And while increasing vaccination rates is key, public health experts remind that other weapons against the virus like mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing are also still crucial.
Here in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, state lawmakers, and other government officials have worked to eliminate mask mandates and other local ordinances aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. In May, DeSantis also signed a bill into law barring businesses and government agencies from requiring proof of vaccination.
University of South Florida College of Public Health Professor of Public Health Practice and Family Medicine Dr. Marissa Levine said these policy positions are problematic.
“When we see laws like this being passed at the state level impacting what localities or organizations can do, then we take away the very effort that’s needed in something like a pandemic where there are differences from locale to locale,” said Levine.
She said it is important for elected officials to take a broad view when considering policy related to public health.
“It’s not just about our physical health and it’s not just about our economy. It’s about economic, physical, emotional and social wellbeing. So, when you make public policy decisions, which are probably the most important decisions that need to be made, because of their impact, particularly in a pandemic where you need to act promptly because prompt action leads to better results, then you have to take that larger view,” said Dr. Levine.
“And I think what happened here in Florida and in many other places, is we thought that we had to make a decision about economics separate from a decision about health. Somehow, they’re competing. And I would argue that they’re not. They’re all part of what we have to consider when we make public policy.”
Dr. Levine also expressed concern with the beginning of a new school year just around the corner, and public school districts being pressured by Gov. DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to drop their mask mandates.
In September 2020, DeSantis issued an executive order opening up all businesses regardless of restrictions at the local level and suspended the collection of locally imposed fines or penalties on businesses that violate local pandemic regulations. Then in March, he signed another executive order canceling fines imposed by local government mandates on businesses and individuals. In May, DeSantis passed yet another executive order suspending any remaining locally-imposed pandemic restrictions, which went into effect July 1.
In an April memo to Florida school district superintendents, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran directed that mask mandates for students, staff and visitors of schools in the state should be dropped.
“We’re still learning about the Delta variant,” said Dr. Levine.
“We know it’s more transmissible. We do not yet know what its impact is going to be, particularly in children, let’s say. And I guess the question I would ask all of us to consider is, ‘Are we willing to experiment with our children, just so we don’t mandate things like masks because we’re worried about the mandates?’”
During a media conference Thursday, Governor DeSantis discussed the possibility of calling state lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special legislative session if the federal government were to take action requiring masks in schools.
CDC guidance currently calls for children under 12, who are not eligible to get a vaccine, to wear masks in schools. To date, the Biden administration has not taken the step of making that a requirement.
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