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Some Florida hospitals have more COVID patients than ever before

Patients queue outside a COViD-19 testing site in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday, July 23, 2021. A rapid rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida and other parts of the country with lagging vaccination rates is causing alarm.
Patients queue outside a COViD-19 testing site in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday, July 23, 2021. A rapid rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida and other parts of the country with lagging vaccination rates is causing alarm.Agnes Lopez/NYT

MIAMI — A month ago, the number of COVID-19 patients admitted at two University of Florida hospitals in Jacksonville was down to 14. Now more than 140 people are hospitalized with the virus, a tenfold increase over five weeks — and the highest number of COVID patients this system has seen since the start of the pandemic.

Debra Wells, 65, was among those admitted to one of the hospitals earlier this month when what she thought was a cold grew worse and worse until she could not breathe. “I said, ‘Lord, I feel like I’m dying,’” she recalled.

Like most of the patients that hospital officials say they are admitting in Jacksonville and other fast-filling medical facilities in pockets around the country, Wells was unvaccinated. She had worried, she said, that the shots were not safe.

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“I was misinformed,” Wells said this week, after a five-day hospital stay. “I wasn’t ready, and I was scared.”

A national uptick in coronavirus cases has led, in sudden and concerning fashion, to a steep rise in hospitalizations in some spots around the country where people have been slower to get vaccinated, a predicament experts hoped might be avoided because the people contracting the infection tend to be younger and healthier.

Nationally, hospitalizations remain relatively low, nowhere near earlier peaks of the pandemic. But in some regions with lagging vaccination rates and rising virus cases — such as Northeast Florida, Southwest Missouri, Southern Nevada — the highly contagious delta variant has flooded intensive care units and COVID wards that not long ago had seen their patient counts shrink.

At the two hospitals in Jacksonville, the number of COVID-19 patients is higher than last summer, when the coronavirus slammed Florida, and higher than over the winter, when the virus surged to devastating levels across the nation.

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“It’s very frustrating,” said Dr. Leon Haley Jr., CEO of UF Health Jacksonville. “Each day we continue to go up. There’s no sense of when things are going to curtail themselves. People are stretched thin.”

The situation is worrying across Northeast Florida. The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is on track to match or exceed its earlier record. Wolfson Children’s Hospital has its second-highest number of admissions, 45, after reaching 57 in January.

About 90 miles south, in Daytona Beach, an AdventHealth hospital has more COVID patients than ever before. Across the AdventHealth system in Central Florida, the COVID patient load grew by 67% over the past week, to 720 from 430.

Hospitalizations have increased in 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico over the last two weeks, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The only states where they have gone down are Maryland, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Florida, Missouri and Texas account for about 34% of all new cases nationwide. Greene County in southwestern Missouri reported 259 COVID-19 hospitalizations Tuesday, up from a previous high of 237 on Dec. 1. By Wednesday, that number was 265.

About one-fifth of all national cases over the past two weeks have originated in Florida, which has emerged as a microcosm of the nation’s mounting COVID worries. The state has the fourth-highest hospitalization rate, behind Nevada, Missouri and Arkansas.

Hospital administrators and physicians from every corner of the Florida Peninsula began taking measures over the past few days to restrict visitor access and, in some cases, elective surgeries to allow for the growing number of COVID patients. Their urgent pleas to the public brimmed with frustration.

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“If we were able to get more people vaccinated earlier than this,” Haley said, “we probably wouldn’t be here.”