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COVID surge in Pinellas is delaying emergency hospital care, officials warn

Concern rises over long waits after ambulance drop-offs. County is “the highest we’ve ever been” for case counts.
Published Aug. 3
Updated Aug. 3

Residents choosing to remain unvaccinated for the coronavirus are having a disproportionate impact on local hospitals and government resources, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton warned on Tuesday.

Daily counts of new cases are up to 660 on average, “the highest we’ve ever been,” Burton said, and hospitals are overwhelmed by patients, delaying help to those arriving for emergencies.

The time from ambulance drop-off to when patients are seen for medical care has risen dramatically to about an hour on average, and to three hours in one instance, he said. That period typically averages about 15 minutes.

“It is impacting our health care system, it is impacting our community and we have a solution, we have a solution in the vaccine,” Burton said. “We’ve got the governor promoting get your shot, we’ve got leaders from around the community getting their shot and we’ve got hospitals showing real life examples of people that are in the ER without underlying health conditions that are 35 years old wishing they had got the shot.”

As the vast majority of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations involve the unvaccinated, local officials are struggling with how to encourage more people to trust the vaccine and to understand the impact resistance is having on the broader community, Burton told the Board of County Commissioners before a budget workshop on Tuesday.

He said health officials are still holding vaccination clinics throughout the county, but “we plateaued” in shot distributions.

Assistant County Administrator Lourdes Benedict said 63.9 percent of Pinellas County residents ages 12 to 65 and 85.5 percent of residents older than 65 have received at least one dose. But positivity rates are increasing drastically as well, she said.

As of Tuesday, Pinellas County had a 14 percent positivity rate, up from 2.5 percent a few weeks ago, Benedict said, as officials conduct more testing than they have before.

She said the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg is going door to door with nurses to provide shots and is working with “influencers” in the community to promote vaccines “so they’re not hearing it just from government.”

But officials are growing increasingly concerned over the impact that the increase in cases is having on the health care system, especially ambulance drop-off times,

“It’s never been this high,” Benedict said of emergency room waits after drop-off.

While the beginning of the pandemic disproportionately affected seniors, hospitals are seeing a majority of COVID-19 patients in younger age groups, Benedict said.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, and Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, will return to brief the commission on Aug. 10 on the state of the local health care system, a habit they discontinued earlier this year as cases decreased.

Commissioner Janet Long expressed frustration over the politics around coronavirus vaccines when life-saving inoculations have long been required for school children and society.

“I’m just a little over all of the crazy talk about not trusting government and all of that nonsense because we’re not here just to have fun, we’re all here because we’re dedicated public servants,” Long said.

She blasted decisions by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature that have preempted local communities from enacting measures like mask mandates and restrictions on business operations to control spread of the virus.

Long said she took an oath of office to protect public health and safety and “did not take an oath of fealty to the governor or to the state Legislature.”

She raised support for a mask requirement in county-owned buildings as the pandemic rages on, but that suggestion got no response from her commission colleagues.

Because of the rise in cases, commissioners agreed to cancel plans to return their meetings next week to the assembly room in the Clearwater Courthouse at 315 Court St. They will continue to hold meetings at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension, where there is more space to spread out.

Commission chairperson Dave Eggers said messaging is key as officials continue to encourage vaccines for people who are still skeptical.

“I think carrot’s a lot more important than sticks at this point,” Eggers said. “It’s really important we galvanize together as a community instead of doing things that separate, that divide us.”

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