In Florida, there are more people dying of COVID-19 than ever before. There are also more children being infected than ever before.
Those two trends emerged from the latest weekly coronavirus data released by the state Friday as the fourth pandemic wave continues in the Sunshine State.
The state reported 1,727 deaths from Aug. 20 through Thursday, the most recent seven-day period of data released by the state. That is the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities reported in a single week since the start of the pandemic.
August deaths match the peak fatalities from the last wave of infections in January. And that number could continue to climb as new data rolls in, said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.
It’s impossible to tell how high deaths will climb, said Salemi, “but I would not at all be surprised if the highest average of the delta wave does get into the 220s or 230s or even higher.”
Record numbers of hospitalizations among people over 50 and climbing ICU patients, he said, suggests the state will see high fatality rates in the weeks to come.
Florida added 151,749 coronavirus cases. Nearly one out of every three infections was suffered by those age 19 and under. While more young Floridians are being diagnosed with COVID-19, infections actually fell in every other age group.
Pediatric admissions are holding steady at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. But Dr. Joseph Perno, vice president of medical affairs, said the emergency room is still treating a high volume of children for COVID-19.
“It’s demoralizing,” he said. “We’re functioning at our peak volume.”
The state averaged about 21,700 infections and 250 deaths per day over that seven-day period. It’s the third week in a row that cases held steady at around 21,000 cases per day, but infections remained at over 50 percent higher than the previous wave in January.
Florida hospitals had 16,146 confirmed COVID-19 patients as of Friday, the lowest level in two weeks. Hospitalizations had been climbing steadily since mid-June, before leveling in the past week.
“Fingers crossed, we may be seeing the beginning of a downward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations, but new cases remain near all-time highs, so it is much too early to declare victory,” said Florida Hospital Association president Mary Mayhew in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
However, hospitalizations are still about 70 percent higher than the last peak seen in July 2020.
The state distributed over 460,000 vaccinations last week and nearly 280,000 more Floridians were fully inoculated against the coronavirus, 17 percent of whom were 19 or younger. But 41 percent of the total population is unvaccinated.
Pediatric cases, hospitalizations
More and more, COVID-19 is afflicting the state’s youngest residents. Ages 19 and under account for 32 percent of infections, or 48,215 cases.
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Young Floridians also continue to lead all age groups in positivity rates: Ages 12-19 have a 23 percent positivity rate, the highest in the state. Children ages 12 and under have the second highest rate at 19 percent — and those 11 and under cannot be vaccinated.
Florida hospitals had 215 pediatric cases with confirmed COVID-19 as of Friday, the highest number of child hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.
Five children under 16 have died from COVID-19 in Florida in the past four weeks.
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg is treating both healthy children and those with underlying conditions for the coronavirus. ”We have seen healthy children in our ICU,” said Perno, a pediatric emergency medicine physician.
And now that the school year has begun, the hospital is starting to see the impact. Outside of a pandemic, hospital admissions generally increase as class begins and kids spread germs and viruses.
“This year has been no different,” he said. “Right now, kids should be masked.”
The fight over whether schoolchildren should wear masks gripped the state this week. A Leon County judge on Friday overturned Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning school districts from requiring masks.
DeSantis had threatened financial penalties to 10 districts, representing more than half of Florida’s 2.8 million public school students, which had originally defied his order by requiring masks.
Hospitals filled and straining
Hospitalizations may have plateaued, but the longer hospital utilization stays high, the larger the strain on the healthcare system. “It’s indescribable, the challenge for hospitals,” said Mayhew.
First, there is the mental and physical exhaustion among frontline workers, she said. Florida hospitals have seen record turnover rates among nurses and have massive staffing gaps among other critical positions.
One out of every four Florida hospitals reported a staffing shortage this week, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s the highest rate since last August.
As severe infections get worse, more patients are landing in ICU wards across Florida, which puts a greater strain on hospital staffing and resources, Mayhew said. More than 50 percent of ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients for the first time during the pandemic, according to DHHS data.
“You need specially trained nurses to provide that level of care, and then you factor in the special equipment that is supporting our COVID patients,” she said. “It just further adds complexity and the demands of care.”
Across Tampa Bay, local hospitals continue to see unprecedented hospitalizations.
As of Friday morning, just over 240 patients were being treated at Tampa General Hospital for the coronavirus. There were 109 patients being treated in the intensive care unit, up 21 percent from last week. The overwhelming majority of ICU patients are unvaccinated, the hospital said. The average age of COVID-19 patients in the ICU is 57. The average age of all unvaccinated patients is 55.
AdventHealth’s West Florida Division hospitals are seeing unvaccinated patients in their 20s and 30s, said Dr. Robin McGuinness, senior executive officer for patient outcomes. Many AdventHealth facilities stopped elective procedures that are not considered urgent because so many beds are needed for COVID-19 patients.
Baycare facilities have seen the number of COVID-19 patients stabilize, said chief operating officer Glenn Waters. Elective surgeries remain on pause and will not resume until there is a substantial reduction in COVID-19 admissions. Waters said everyone should be taking precautions as the fourth pandemic wave continues unabated.
“We’re encouraging folks to wear masks when they’re out in public,” he said.
Still, “staffing is stretched,” Waters said. And despite bringing in a significant number of travel nurses to help, after 18 months dealing with the pandemic, “the staff are tired.”
In Pasco County, at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, “we are seeing our highest number of hospital admissions since the beginning of the COVID pandemic,” said chief medical officer Dr. Michael Trevisani in an email. “The patients we are seeing are in general younger, more severely affected and have a higher chance of mortality.”
The hospital set up a tent outside its emergency room to accommodate the influx of patients and allow social distancing. Thus far, the hospital says it can manage its current patient load but there is a plan in place to expand its COVID-19 ward if it reaches capacity.
“We continue to strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to do so, now,” Trevisani said.
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
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