Florida hospital CEOs say COVID vaccines are working

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Hospital leaders across the state came together Wednesday to say COVID vaccines are working.

Although Florida hospitals see an increase in COVID admissions, leaders said patients are mostly young, unvaccinated people, not seniors who are a highly vaccinated group in the state.

“Vaccinations absolutely have made a difference,” said Dr. George Ralls, chief medical officer with Orlando Health. “We did see a significant flip in the percentage of patients over 65. For this current wave, about 55% of our inpatients are between 40 and 64 years old.”

At a virtual roundtable Wednesday morning led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s hospitals leaders said they do have vaccinated COVID patients, but they are mostly people with underlying conditions or who are admitted for other illnesses and test positive.

“A vast majority of those vaccinated individuals in our hospital are folks who got COVID but end up hospitalized because they are immunosuppressed anyway,” said John Couris, CEO of Tampa General.

Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System in Miami, said only 12% of COVID admissions are vaccinated people, and half are people coming for other reasons than COVID.

DeSantis asked hospital leaders if the COVID vaccine is doing its job. At a news briefing a day earlier, the governor had noted as many as 25,000 reports of breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people testing positive for the virus that causes COVID.

Ralls said Orlando Health hospital admissions show clearly that vaccinated people are not getting as sick from Delta, the aggressive variant behind the rise of cases in Florida in recent weeks.

“The vaccine is highly effective, and what we keep seeing over and over are cases where if the person had the vaccine, they never would have made it to the hospital,” Ralls said. “They might have been sick. They might have developed symptoms, but the protective effect of the vaccine is what was missing.”

Ralls said fully vaccinated people who still getting COVID “absolutely are in a better situation than they would have been had they gotten COVID without the vaccine.”

Florida hospitals have reported record COVID admissions in the last few days. There were 12,408 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Florida on Wednesday, breaking the state’s hospitalization record for the third day in a row, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. About a fifth of those hospitalized — 2,494 people — are in intensive care, occupying nearly 39% of Florida’s ICU hospital beds.

In Broward County, Shane Strum, CEO of Broward Health, said while his health system has admitted an increasing number of COVID patients, they still make up only 20% of admissions.

Strum said doctors at Broward Heath believe Delta is more infectious, but not necessarily causing more severe illness. The average length of stay for vaccinated patients is two days compared with seven for unvaccinated patients. During last summer’s surge, before COVID vaccines became available, the average length of stay was 10 days.

Strum encouraged Floridians who are sick not to delay care, noting that many patients put off medical attention that could have kept them out of the hospitals.

In Central Florida, Orlando Health CEO David Strong said he is optimistic that the current wave will taper off soon. Strong said his health system has had about 500 COVID patients for the last few days. “If you look at the models in UK and Netherlands, the peak went up rapidly and fell very quickly. We are hoping the same thing occurs here,” Strong said.

Hospital leaders encourage people who have a new COVID diagnosis, or those who were exposed to COVID at at high risk, to consider infusions of monoclonal antibodies, given in the emergency department or at outpatient clinics.

“We have been urging the medical community to use this to aggressively treat COVID in our community,” said Couris of Tampa General. “Almost 100% of those treated said 24 to 48 hours later their symptoms had started to subside.”

Medical researchers say monoclonal antibody infusions can help keep some COVID-19 sufferers from becoming hospitalized, but they must be given in the first seven days of exhibiting symptoms or getting a positive test result.

During last summer’s COVID wave, South Florida hospitals reported high levels of COVID patients admissions. Miami-Dade and Broward counties each admitted 1,100 patients in the last seven days and Palm Beach admitted 600 patients, numbers below last summer’s surge, according to the CDC. However, hospitals in Duval and Orange counties report they are at record levels for COVID patients, exceeding prior peaks.

Migoya said at the peak last summer, Jackson Health’s COVID patients made up 49% of the health system’s overall patient count. Now, they make up 21%. “We are all very busy in our [Emergency Departments],” he said. Jackson has 280 COVID patients; at its peak last summer the health system had 500 COVID patients. “The spike is strong, the last few days it moved up. We are four weeks in. Last summer’s surge lasted six weeks to the peak. We are saying one to three weeks more but who knows? We are preparing for the worst.”

Migoya said he believes the death rate from the virus will be lower than last summer with more seniors vaccinated, however, “we don’t know if it’s a matter of where we are in this stage of the peak.”

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Throughout the pandemic, COVID deaths have lagged behind hospitalizations by several weeks. The CDC’s website shows Florida had 479 deaths from COVID in the last seven days, bringing the total who succumbed to the virus to more than 39,000 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Florida’s hospital CEOS told DeSantis their biggest challenge is having enough staff to care for COVID patients and the flood of other sick patients coming to their emergency departments. Some are bringing in temporary nurses from staffing agencies. “Our nurses have been at this for 18 months. They are working overtime to maintain staffing ratios,” Migoya said.

Still, the CEOS encouraged Floridians to come to the hospital sooner rather than later if they need medical attention.

“Our team knows how to take care of COVID patients well, but we are continuing the work we are called to do every day,” said Strum at Broward Health. “We would encourage people to seek the care that they need.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com.

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