North-east Florida becomes hotspot as Covid ravages areas of low vaccination

As quickly as one Covid patient is discharged, another waits for a bed in north-east Florida, the hot zone of the state’s latest coronavirus surge.

But the patients at Baptist Health’s five hospitals across Jacksonville are younger and getting sick from the virus faster than people did last summer.

Baptist has more than 500 Covid patients, more than twice the number they had at the peak of Florida’s July 2020 surge, and the onslaught isn’t letting up.

Hospital officials are anxiously monitoring 10 forecast models, converting empty spaces, adding over 100 beds and “bracing for the worst”, said Dr Timothy Groover, the hospitals’ interim chief medical officer.

“Jacksonville is kind of the epicenter of this. They had one of the lowest vaccination rates going into July and that has probably really came back to bite them,” said Justin Senior, CEO of the Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance, which represents some of the largest hospitals in the state.

Florida, Texas, Alabama and Georgia healthcare systems are all suffering from acute demand for dwindling intensive care unit (ICU) beds to accommodate seriously ill coronavirus patients.

Arkansas, Oregon, Hawaii, Louisiana and Mississippi have also set records for Covid-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks.

The situation is highly exacerbated by the fact that those states have low vaccination rates compared with many other US states and virtually everyone who is sick or dying has not been vaccinated, in what the White House continues to call “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

Even where fully vaccinated people are catching coronavirus, they may not have noticeable symptoms or they may get sick but are highly unlikely to end up in the ICU or dying because of Covid.

Florida’s Duval county, which consists almost entirely of Jacksonville, is a racially diverse Democratic bastion, won by Joe Biden. The overwhelmingly white rural counties that surround it went firmly for Donald Trump.

But all had lower than average vaccination rates before the highly contagious Delta variant swept through this corner of Florida, driving caseloads in a state that now accounts for one in five Covid patients hospitalized nation

There are a whole host of reasons across the US why people are not taking the vaccine, in what can often be a complicated picture.

In a sign of the message hitting home, however, while Duval’s vaccination rate of 56% is in the middle among Florida counties, its vaccination rate has been accelerating noticeably faster than many other counties in the last month.

Dr Leonardo Alfonso rotates between emergency rooms at three Jacksonville hospitals, working on his days off because they are so desperate for staff. One typically has about 50 patients, but some days it treats 100 or more.

“The ICUs are brimming. They’re running out of ventilators,” Alfonso said with frustration. “People are dying. It’s so preventable.”

The Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, recently ordered a rapid response unit to help deliver monoclonal antibody therapy to a wider range of higher-risk patients who become infected, in hopes of relieving “some of the pressure” on local hospitals.

Several large counties are defying DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates in schools.

Alfonso said vaccinations could have blunted this surge, but when he asks patients if they got their shots, “I get this deer in the headlights headlights look, kind of just a blank stare, like they didn’t give it importance or they just blew it off or they thought they were young and healthy.”

Anxiety in the US over Covid-19 is at its highest level since winter, a new poll shows, as the Delta variant rages.

The poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds that majorities of American adults want vaccination mandates for those attending movies, sports, concerts and other crowded events, those traveling by airplane and workers in hospitals, restaurants, stores and government offices.

The poll shows that 41% are “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or their family becoming infected with the virus. That is up from 21% in June, and about the same as in January.

Hospitals across the US had more than 75,000 coronavirus patients as of last week, a dramatic increase from a few weeks ago but still well below the winter surge records.

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