ICU demand high at South Florida hospitals as COVID cases increase

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South Florida COVID patients are filling ICU beds at rates not seen before.

A new dashboard released by Palm Beach County Thursday reveals that only 4% of ICU beds in its 17 hospitals are available. In Broward County, only 3% of ICU beds at its 16 hospitals are available, its dashboard shows.

Across the state, the situation is just as bleak.

While ICU beds are filled with patients who need all types of care, most of them in Florida are occupied by COVID patients — 55%, which is more than double the number just four weeks ago. Nationally, about 29% of ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services.

Although hospitals can convert regular beds into critical care beds, many lack the additional staff needed for patients who require a higher level of care. More Florida COVID patients, for example, are now on ventilators. The Florida Hospital Association reported about 17% of COVID patients are on ventilators as of Tuesday compared with 13% a month ago.

Hospitals report almost all of the patients in the ICU are unvaccinated.

“The number of COVID patients in the ICU is increasing because patients are younger, which translates into a longer ICU stay when compared to the surge last year,” said Dr. Scott Ross, chief medical officer at Cleveland Clinic in Weston. “We are seeing patients as young as 18 needing mechanical ventilation and patients in their 20s and 30s not surviving this virus. Vaccination is still our best community approach moving forward.”

Dr. Aharon Sareli, chief of critical care at Memorial Healthcare System, said patients in the ICU, particularly those on ventilators, face an uphill battle fighting the disease that shuts down their lungs.

“The overwhelming majority in the ICU are on ventilators,” Sareli said. “This virus causes inflammation in the lungs and can take a long time to heal. The longer a patient is in ICU, the more at risk they are of complications.”

Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association, said in a written statement that overall COVID patient counts may be stabilizing, but many extremely sick people are still in hospitals.

“We are not out of the woods just yet as our health care heroes continue to provide care to the patients in their extremely full hospitals and emergency departments,” she said.

On Thursday, Palm Beach County’s new public COVID dashboard shows 155 COVID patients in Palm Beach County are on ventilators. It also indicates hospitals have added 259 beds to accommodate the flood of COVID patients and 103 new COVID patients were admitted to Palm Beach hospitals in the last 24 hours.

Palm Beach Commissioners directed hospitals to report their COVID hospitalizations under a directive after the publicly run, rural Lakeside Medical Center reached capacity on Aug. 16 and called other hospitals in the county for help. Not one could take the hospital’s overflow critical-care patients.

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“As a whole, we are all exhausted,” said Dr. Jennifer Buczyner, the stroke director at Jupiter Medical Center who organized the gathering. “We can’t sit by and watch this anymore.”

Critical care nurses are spending eight hours or more a day donned in full protective gear with only their eyes making contact with a flailing COVID patient. In between caring for patients, they tell family members how bad a toll COVID is taking on their loved ones who might have had a better outcome had they gotten a vaccine and worn a mask.

In Broward County, the number of COVID patients admitted to its 16 hospitals has fluctuated for the last seven days between 1,642 and 1,842. On Thursday, about 97 % of adult care beds were filled.

Broward hospitals continue to treat seriously ill COVID patients, with 254 of them on ventilators in the intensive care units.

Ross at Cleveland Clinic said even COVID patients who are not on ventilators often need additional oxygen to breathe. ”It’s straining all hospitals in the area to maintain comfortable levels of oxygen to meet the needs of our patients.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter CIndy Goodman can be reached at

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