Jacksonville hospitals see COVID-19 case surge; DeSantis calls increase in Florida cases ‘seasonal’

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida is grappling with a wave of COVID-19 infections that is sending more young people to hospitals, forcing some facilities to limit visitors and reschedule elective surgeries and prompting elected officials to plead for people to get vaccinated.

During a news conference with top Northeast Florida hospital officials, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry made a plea for COVID-19 vaccinations, saying 800 people, most of them unvaccinated, were in area hospitals.

“The vaccine is the best tool we have to protect ourselves, our friends, our neighbors and our loved ones,” Curry said. “Despite having access to the vaccines, we are seeing hospitalizations for this virus here in Jacksonville at a level we haven’t seen since the height of the pandemic last year. We have a better solution. It’s a solution that helps prevent severe illness and death, and that is the vaccine, a vaccine that is accessible to basically anyone who wants it.”

The pleas for vaccination came as the dangerous delta variant of the coronavirus has spread in Florida and across the country.

READ: Unvaccinated Jacksonville dad hospitalized for COVID-19, warns others to take virus seriously

In Duval County, 49 percent of people ages 12 or older had received at least one vaccine dose as of last Thursday, according to the latest available state data. That’s below the state average of 59 percent and is well below other heavily populated counties, such as Miami-Dade and Broward, where 75 percent and 67 percent of the people, respectively, had received at least one dose. The state data do not give a county-by-county breakdown of people who are fully vaccinated.

Leon Haley, CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, said 136 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at the health system’s two hospitals on Wednesday, an all-time high and quadruple the number of patients in the last three weeks. Patients, he said, are on average 10 years younger than people who were treated in January.

Ninety percent of the COVID-19 patients being treated at UF Health Jacksonville had not been vaccinated, Haley said, while the other 10 percent had not completed their recommended vaccination doses or had severe underlying medical conditions.

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COVID-19 has caused 18 patient deaths in July, an increase from four deaths at the health system last month, he said.

“One-hundred percent of those deaths are related to unvaccinated individuals,” Haley said.

Due to the spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations, UF Health Jacksonville has been rescheduling elective surgeries that require inpatient stays. Elective surgeries that can be conducted on an outpatient basis have not been canceled or rescheduled, Haley said.

“We have such a significant impact on our beds right now that those that we can reschedule we are,” he said.

READ: Looking for a COVID vaccine? “Wellness on Wheels” offers free shots in Jacksonville communities

The number of COVID-19 infections in Florida jumped from 10,459 cases during the week of June 11 to 45,603 cases during the week of July 9, according to state data.

Meanwhile, the number of people vaccinated dropped from 418,654 during the week of June 11 to 224,326 during the week of July 9. Vaccination rates remain the lowest among young people.

Less than half, or 46 percent, of the nearly 2.8 million people in Florida between the ages of 30 and 39 have been vaccinated, according to the state. That rate drops to 38 percent for people between the ages of 20 and 29 and 33 percent for those ages 12 to 19.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has drawn national attention for repeatedly throwing barbs at top federal health officials who have pushed COVID-19 precautions, said on Wednesday that vaccines save lives.

READ: Surge in new cases of COVID-19 in Duval prompts urgent message from Florida Blue Medical Director

When he was asked during an appearance in St. Petersburg about Florida’s increasing cases, DeSantis for the second time this week called it a “seasonal” event and said he’s not worried about the numbers. But the governor stressed that people who get vaccinated will avoid serious illness or death.

He contended that most unvaccinated people “don’t think COVID is a hoax” but that they remain skeptical about advice from health officials.

“The more they are hectored by government officials, that is not going to get them to yes,” DeSantis said.

But while the governor stuck to his talking points, hospitals, including those in Jacksonville, are dealing with the influx of new cases.

READ: Jacksonville doctors report COVID-19 patients are crowding local hospitals

Like UF Health, Baptist Health in Jacksonville has seen an increase in hospitalized patients because of COVID-19 and has had to restrict and reschedule elective surgeries at some of its facilities, according to Michael Mayo, president & CEO of Baptist Health.

Abou 69 percent of the patients being hospitalized at Baptist Health have contracted the delta variant, which spreads quicker than the older COVID-19 virus and also infects younger people.

Baptist Health Chief Medical Officer Timothy Groover said that while COVID-19 was once considered a virus that affected seniors or people with underlying conditions, the delta variant is having serious impacts on younger people.

Indeed, 44 percent of the patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Baptist Health in the past month were in their 40s or younger.

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“These are people who are typically in the workforce but are absent today because they are in a hospital,” Groover said. “Most were previously healthy -- moms, dads, brothers, sisters -- who are now hospitalized because of the virus. Even when these patients return home from the hospital, some struggle for months from fatigue and other long-lasting symptoms, including cardiac, pulmonary conditions that keep them from returning to their normal activities including work. So the implications reach far and wide.”

As Florida deals with a dwindling number of people getting shots, a group known as the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Taskforce met Wednesday to discuss the increasing numbers of cases and initiatives to increase vaccination rates in communities of color.

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Florida Department of Health Deputy Secretary Shamarial Roberson was slated to address the task force, but she didn’t attend. At the end of the meeting, task force Chairman R.B. Holmes announced that Roberson had contacted the task force “at the last minute” to say she had an emergency and wouldn’t be in attendance.

But that didn’t sit well with Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

“I think that you need to call her office and ask why she’s not here. I think they could have sent a representative if she could not make it,” Holmes said. “You know, I know we have a gag order on not telling folks the truth about the numbers because of the delay on that. We can’t play those kinds of games with folks’ lives.”