A fourth wave of COVID-19 is threatening to overwhelm U.S. hospitals in regions where large swaths of unvaccinated people provide little resistance to the highly contagious delta variant.
Nowhere is the strain more apparent than Florida, which reached a new peak Tuesday of 11,515 people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Hospitals in Jacksonville and Orlando last week crashed through their pandemic peaks, and hospitals in Miami-Dade County are at or approaching record coronavirus hospitalizations this week, said Mary Mayhew, CEO of Florida Hospital Association.
And cases continue to surge with 110,477 residents testing positive for the COVID-19 virus for the week ended July 29, foreshadowing more people needing hospital care in the weeks ahead.
“The delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated,” Mayhew said.
Across Florida, COVID surge is ‘straining our system’
Further stressing hospitals are larger-than-normal volumes of sick people crowding emergency rooms with non-COVID illnesses, Mayhew said. The combination has challenged hospitals’ capacity to staff enough nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and other clinicians to care for the surge of critically-ill patients.
With more than 1,000 coronavirus patients at hospitals across its six-county region, Orlando’s AdventHealth suspended non-emergency operations last week to free up staff and space. More than 90% of COVID patients at AdventHealth’s hospitals are unvaccinated, and the small number of vaccinated patients with COVID typically have underlying conditions such as cancer or autoimmune disease, the hospital said.
“We have peaked above any previous wave and it is straining our system, our physicians and all of our clinicians,” said Neil Finkler, chief clinical officer of AdventHealth’s Central Florida division.
“None of these patients thought they would get the virus. But the delta variant has proven to be so highly contagious that even the young and the healthy, including pregnant patients, are starting to fill up our hospitals.”
While hospitals from the Northeast to the Southwest set up temporary field hospitals during past surges, Mayhew said Florida hospitals are converting existing hospital space to set up beds. Hospitals are making space in conference rooms, cafeterias and auditoriums.
Mayhew said converting existing hospital space allows more efficient use of limited staff rather than scrambling to staff a remote field hospital in a parking lot or a convention center.
Public health officials have called for tougher measures after the CDC last week recommended all K-12 students to wear masks in classrooms. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis followed with an executive order blocking mask mandates in schools and school districts concluded they can’t legally enforce a mask requirement.
‘Every staffed bed’ is full at some Texas hospitals
In Texas, hospitals are preparing for the steady rise of COVID hospitalizations that are following rising cases counts. Like in Florida, Texas hospital beds are being filled with unvaccinated COVID patients, said Angela G. Clendenin, a professor at Texas A&M School of Public Health.
While previous COVID-19 waves mainly involved older and middle-aged adults with existing health conditions, the new wave is claiming young adults in their 20s and 30s who need breathing machines in hospital intensive care units, Clendenin said.
The result is hospitals are again preparing for or enacting surge plans to convert medical wings into intensive care units, she said.
“By not getting vaccinated and doing your part, we risk crashing one of the most advanced health care systems in the world,” Clendenin said.
Hospitals in South Texas are already struggling to keep up with the pace of sick patients.
South Texas hospitals in Corpus Christi, Victoria, Kingsville, Beeville and San Antonio began diverting patients. In a statement this week, Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales urged available nurses to fill a staffing gap amid a surge of COVID-19 patients.
“Every staffed bed is full,” Canales said. “There are beds available but no nursing staff for them.”
While Florida and Texas accounted for one-third of all COVID cases last week, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing in nearly all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Missouri, which trails only Louisiana in cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, hospitals are preparing for stressful weeks ahead.
Hospitalizations during the delta-driven wave surpassed last winter’s peak in several communities, said Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association.
“The growth in positivity and hospitalization that might have taken months in 2020 is now happening in weeks with delta,” Dillon said. “We’re probably in for a hard summer and fall.”