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Covid is surging in Florida. Doctors, nurses back in crisis mode

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Debi de la Paz, a nurse at UF Health Jacksonville, worked in the intensive care unit during some of the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic last summer.

“It was bad,” she said of the first wave, “but now it seems to be even worse.”

UF Health Jacksonville is once again filling up with patients battling Covid-19. They are younger — many are in their 20s and 30s, some even in their teens — and they appear to be much sicker than those who flooded hospitals in the early months of the pandemic, de la Paz said.

Sabrina Oetterer, a nurse who started working at UF Health in March, said the change has been “insane.” These days, Oetterer said, it seems as though virtually every new patient coming into the hospital has Covid.

Florida, the third most populous state, has become the new national center for the virus, accounting for about a fifth of all new cases in the country. In hospitals across the state, doctors, nurses and staff members are confronting a fast-moving and escalating crisis with no end in sight.

Florida shattered Covid records over the weekend. On Saturday, the state recorded 21,683 new daily cases — the most since the start of the pandemic. On Sunday, the state broke a record for current hospitalizations with 10,207, the Florida Hospital Association confirmed. The previous record — 10,179 hospitalizations — was set July 23, 2020, more than a half-year before vaccinations started to become widespread.

Dr. Dean Watson, a vice president at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare, said his hospital has seen a significant increase in confirmed cases and hospitalizations over the last three weeks alone, putting new pressure on caregivers and straining resources.

“We have more Covid patients in our hospital with this surge than we did with the original surge,” Watson said. “We have been living Covid for over a year and a half. The stress and the strain for all the providers and nursing staff is really getting to everyone.”

In the last week, Florida averaged 1,525 new adult hospitalizations a day and 35 new daily pediatric hospitalizations, both of which are the highest per capita rates in the U.S., said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida.

The weekly trends paint an especially bleak picture. Salemi pointed out that in the most recent weekly report from the state Health Department, for example, the state logged more cases in children younger than 12 than it had in its entire population just six weeks ago.

The alarming spike has come as the new and more transmissible delta variant spreads across Florida and while many residents and tourists have effectively returned to pre-pandemic social rituals.

“You have a lot of vulnerable people in Florida, and then you couple that with a general relaxation of mitigation strategies like mask-wearing and social distancing — and so, unfortunately, this ends up being the result,” Salemi said.

The influx of patients in their 20s and 30s has been particularly unsettling for caregivers.

Dr. Samer Fahmy, the chief medical officer at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, said: “We have had patients in their 20s gasping for air and getting intubated. We’ve had, unfortunately, young mothers who get very sick and lose their babies in the midst of a pregnancy.

“We need this to end, and the best way we know how to do that is through vaccination and some of the mitigation measures,” Fahmy added.

Watson is deeply distressed by the new surge, but he was not entirely shocked because about half of the state’s population has not been fully vaccinated. He believes the new round of suffering “most definitely” could have been prevented if more people had gotten their shots.

“We’re taking care of patients who, if they had made the right choice and gotten the vaccine, would not be in the hospital,” he said. “You’re battling through sadness, but you’re also battling through a little anger, too.”

By Vaughn Hillyard, Daniel Arkin and Carmen Sesin

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