‘We have an emergency.’ COVID surge becomes dire at Palm Beach County hospitals

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A small rural hospital in Palm Beach County is facing a dire situation with intensive care beds full and nearby hospitals unable to accept critical patients, a Health Care District spokeswoman said Monday.

Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade already has doubled its ICU capacity to 12 beds. All ICU beds now are full with more patients continually arriving. Lakeside has been trying to find alternate locations to send critically ill patients, but nearby hospitals are overwhelmed with their own COVID-19 patient volume, said Robin Kish, spokeswoman for the Health Care District of Palm Beach.

Palm Beach Commission Melissa McKinlay said Lakeside had called all 13 hospitals in the county and not one could take more critical care patients. On Monday she expressed frustration on Twitter when an attempt to transfer patients outside the county did not materialize: “Orlando beds no longer available. Back to square one. Calling hospitals across the state trying to locate beds. Now need five. Calling out-of-state hospitals, too.”

On Sunday, McKinlay also provided a glimpse into the darkening COVID situation all Florida hospitals now face: “Another hospital in my district (outside of rural area) confirmed they are out of blankets, pillows, COVID tests. ER has 30 patients waiting for placement. Expanded ICU full. Transferring 20 patients to another hospital. And our Governor denies we have an emergency.”

Kish said 90% of the 34 COVID-19 positive patients who are hospitalized at Lakeside Medical Center are not vaccinated. The hospital is offering vaccines in its parking lot Monday through Friday.

Like the county to the north, Broward County hospitals reported Monday their hospital beds are nearly full — with new COVID patients arriving daily, The county’s 16 hospitals have admitted another 109 COVID patients in the last 24 hours — 98% of their regular beds and 99% of their ICU beds are occupied.

Of the nearly 1,700 COVID patients currently in Broward hospitals, 230 are on ventilators.

HCA Healthcare, which operates Westside Regional Hospital and Plantation General Hospital, said doctors are trying to treat those they can in the emergency room and admitting only those who need to be hospitalized.

“Approximately 20% of COVID patients are in the ICU, which is similar to previous peaks,” said Holly Catherine, a spokeswoman for HCA Healthcare’s East Florida division.

On Monday, nearly 16,000 people in Florida were hospitalized for treatment of the deadly disease, making up about 28% of beds in use, according to a US Health & Human Services dashboard. That compares with 4,249 people hospitalized for COVID only a month ago. Florida’s hospitals also are treating more patients who delayed care during the pandemic and are arriving with other life-threatening illnesses.

Of the 6,164 intensive care beds at Florida’s hospitals, 92% are in use, with just over half of them occupied by COVID patients.

South Florida hospitals continue to admit large numbers of new COVID patients compared to other parts of the country and the state: Broward County had admitted 1,818 COVID patients during a seven-day period and Miami-Dade had admitted 1,573. Palm Beach County, with a smaller population, had admitted 973. All three counties rank in the top 10 in the nation for new COVID admissions in a national health data report released Aug. 13, but Broward dropped from number one in the nation for new admissions to second behind Harris County in Texas.

Doctors in South Florida are reporting an uptick in pediatric COVID cases, sending more young people to local hospitals. For the week ending Aug. 12, there were 16,754 Floridians younger than 12 who tested positive for the virus and nearly 15,000 between ages 12 and 19, according to the Florida Department of Health.

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Mary C. Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, sent out a plea to Floridians on Friday after noting that 97% of those hospitalized for COVID are not vaccinated: “As Floridians, we must come together to reverse these staggering trends. Getting vaccinated is the only way to protect yourself and others from this virus — keeping you and your loved ones at home and not in a hospital bed.”

At a news briefing Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a clinic in Orlando that could treat 320 patients a day with monoclonal antibodies. The treatment — now being given without charge or a doctor’s referral, and if done within days of testing positive for COVID — can reduce the severity of the disease. A similar clinic opened last week in Jacksonville.

“This has been shown to dramatically reduce the likelihood that you are admitted to the hospital,” DeSantis said. “There is going to be more throughout the state that will do about 320 treatments a day.”

DeSantis emphasized: “Having successful early treatment is not mutually exclusive for vaccines, They do go together.”

With COVID hospitalizations rising, driven by the unvaccinated, two South Florida health systems announced Monday they will be requiring their workers to be vaccinated. Memorial Healthcare System and Baptist Health South Florida said they are making it mandatory for all employees to receive a COVID vaccine. Jackson Health and Holy Cross Health have already announced they will require staff to be vaccinated.

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

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