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Some Florida Hospitals Report More Patients Than At Any Point In Pandemic

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LISTEN: Florida leads the nation in COVID infections and has seen a seven-fold increase of cases in the past six weeks. Hospitals say they're seeing more young people than before, some with severe cases.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All across America this pandemic summer, there are two kinds of states. There are states where coronavirus cases are rising because of the delta variant. And then there are states where cases are massively rising. This morning, we report on two states suffering the most, Louisiana and also Florida, which is where we find NPR's Greg Allen.

Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So Florida's most recent numbers showed it with one-fifth of the cases in the entire country. How did it get that bad?

ALLEN: Well, you know, Florida was actually doing pretty well since cases peaked in January. But now we've gone back to the - that high number, as you say. We've surpassed the January peak.

I spoke to Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida. He says, the rapid rise in cases has to do with a bunch of different factors. For one, Florida is a big state. And if you include children under 12, there's more than 10 million people who are still unvaccinated here. And there's cases of decline, of course - here and elsewhere, there's been a decline in safeguards like face masks and social distancing. And, Salemi says, another fact you can't ignore is Florida's heat.

JASON SALEMI: It's like the winters in the Northeast, right? It is driving people indoors more than they would otherwise be. And, of course, the delta variant is just much more effective and efficient at passing from person to person when we're in indoor settings.

ALLEN: We have seen a small rise in vaccinations in Florida as this surge has developed. But in the meantime, Salemi's a big advocate of going back to using face coverings and social distancing to protect unvaccinated people from becoming infected.

INSKEEP: Who's most affected in Florida's surge?

ALLEN: Well, at Miami's largest hospital, Jackson Health, doctors there say the largest increase in hospitalizations is of patients between ages 50 and 64. But it is true that more young people are being hospitalized now.

And I spoke to Mary Mayhew. She's with the Florida Hospital Association - the CEO there. She says that hospitals are seeing some severe cases among young people.

MARY MAYHEW: The shock of seeing a healthy 25 year old in the ICU on a ventilator, pregnant women in the hospital being aggressively treated for COVID.

ALLEN: As you know, the delta variant is so much more contagious than the earlier COVID virus. And that might help explain why some young, healthy people are being affected so much.

INSKEEP: You mentioned how huge Florida is, Greg. And we were mentioning the variation between states. Is there a variation between different parts of Florida?

ALLEN: Well, yes. I mean, we're seeing a statewide rise here. Every county is seeing it. And - but some hospitals in Florida, especially in the northeast part of the state, in the Jacksonville area, are activating surge plans to cope with all the additional patients. Up in Jacksonville, that's a very populous area. But just over 50% of the people there over age 12 have been vaccinated. And that's significantly lower than the state average.

Health care officials say some 96% of the patients they're seeing up there are unvaccinated. Some hospitals are seeing the most COVID patients yet. Mary Mayhew from the Florida Hospital Association says, the biggest concern is how fast this new surge has developed.

MAYHEW: Last year, it took us 60 days to go from 2,000 hospitalized cases to over 10,000. During this surge with the delta variant, we have gone from 2,000 to over 10,000 cases in 27 days.

ALLEN: According to Mayhew, projections suggest it may be another two to three weeks before the surge levels off. So in the meantime, hospitals and their staff have some busy times ahead.

INSKEEP: Good that they're hoping this levels off in a couple of weeks, but is there a concern that the medical system could collapse as there was fear of collapse last year?

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, hospitals say that they're flexible in the use of space. And they can expand intensive care units as necessary. That has happened some in the Jacksonville area already. But what I hear from hospitals is their biggest concern remains staffing. You know, many hospitals had staff shortages before the pandemic. And this new spike makes it worse.

INSKEEP: Greg, you've said a couple of times - you've quoted experts a couple of times talking about the importance of masking in this situation where not everybody is vaccinated. What is Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, doing about that?

ALLEN: Well, as you might know, he's not a fan of face coverings. He signed an executive order last week saying that when kids go back to school and fall, it's up to parents, not the school district, to decide whether they'll wear face masks when they're back in class. That follows the CDC recommendation saying that that exactly is what should happen to stop the spread of this disease.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.