Pinellas County hospitals have the highest number of patients with coronavirus than at any time since the pandemic began as the highly contagious delta variant infects mostly unvaccinated people, top health officials told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
The county has hit a 16.2 percent positivity rate and 800 cases per day on a seven-day average, “the highest numbers and cases throughout the pandemic,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. That’s up from the 14 percent positivity rate announced by county officials a week ago.
On average, Choe said between 25 percent and 40 percent of hospitalizations in all area hospitals are COVID-19 patients. About 27 percent of the intensive care unit beds are taken up by COVID-19 patients. These are the highest number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations at any time during the pandemic, he said, calling the availability of beds “tight.”
Despite the strain on hospitals, county officials stressed that they are not seeking any government action or mandate except to encourage all residents to get vaccinated.
“We’re simply outlining that we have a community health issue, it is impacting our health care system and we have a solution — our vaccination process,” county administrator Barry Burton said.
County commissioner Kathleen Peters worried that news reports about overwhelmed hospitals may deter residents from seeking emergency care for non-coronavirus ailments like heart attacks or strokes. She said county messaging must be that “if you are vaccinated, it’s safe if you have to go to the hospital.”
Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, agreed he is observing “a little bit of reluctance” from non-coronavirus patients to seek emergency care, which also occurred at the beginning of the pandemic last year. He clarified that hospitals are capable of keeping coronavirus patients isolated, making it safe for residents to go to the hospital.
Jameson said officials have consistently prioritized “protecting the health care system” so it can continue to care for people with other conditions, from heart attacks to accident injuries.
“The way to do that is to try to get things under control here, and the way to do that is to get vaccinated,” he said.
As of Tuesday, 65.3 percent of Pinellas residents 12 and older have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 57 percent have completed the schedule, Choe said. The rate of vaccination is improving, he said, with 10,000 individuals now vaccinated per week compared to 4,500 during a week in mid-July.
But the impact on hospitals is causing the emergency medical system to pull out “every available contingency” to keep up with the surge, Jameson said.
On a daily basis, 40 to 50 ambulances are forced to wait over one hour to offload patients to beds at hospitals “simply because the ER has no space or no staff for those patients due to the number of people already in the ER,” Jameson said.
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One hospital, which Jameson did not name, is running short on ventilators. Choe said the Tampa Bay region is now out of capacity for adult extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a life support machine that treats severely damaged lungs.
Although Jameson could not provide data on staffing levels for hospitals, he said they are stressed, especially because they do not have Federal Emergency Management Agency nurses to assist like last year.
Choe said the current surge in cases is also impacting a younger group of patients, those ranging from 20 to 39 years old.
“If we ever want to see this perpetual cycle of COVID waves end, we all need to do our part and get vaccinated,” Choe said.
Following the doctors’ remarks, during the public comment portion of the meeting, the commission heard a number of residents speak against the vaccines and express doubt around the severity of the coronavirus.
“I for one will not comply by ever getting any vaccines,” St. Petersburg resident Linda Skempris said.
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect number for the cases per day in Pinellas County.)
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