FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida hospitals slammed with COVID-19 patients are suspending elective surgeries and putting beds in conference rooms, an auditorium and a cafeteria. In Georgia, medical centers are turning people away for lack of space. And in Louisiana, the sick are left waiting and waiting some more in the emergency room before being airlifted elsewhere.
“We are seeing a surge like we’ve not seen before in terms of the patients coming,” Dr. Marc Napp, chief medical officer for Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Florida, said Wednesday. “It’s the sheer number coming in at the same time. There are only so many beds, so many doctors, only so many nurses.”
Coronavirus hospitalizations are surging again as the more contagious delta variant rages across the country, forcing medical centers to return to a crisis footing just weeks after many closed their COVID-19 wards and field hospitals and dropped other emergency measures.
The number of people now in the hospital in the U.S. with the virus has more than tripled over the past month, from an average of roughly 12,000 to almost 43,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That is still nowhere close to the nearly 124,000 in hospitals at the very peak of the winter surge in January. But health experts say this wave is perhaps more worrying because it has risen more swiftly than prior ones. Also, a disturbingly large share of patients this time are young adults.
And to the frustration of public health experts and front-line health care workers, the vast majority of those now hospitalized are unvaccinated.
Florida, Georgia and Louisiana alone account for nearly 40% of all hospitalizations in the country. Louisiana and Georgia have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with around 38% of their populations fully inoculated. Florida is closer to the national rate, at 49%. By way of comparison, most New England states are well over 60%.
The variant has sent new U.S. cases surging to 94,000 a day on average, a level not seen since mid-February. Deaths per day have soared 75% in the past two weeks, climbing from an average of 244 to 426. The overall U.S. death toll stands at more than 614,000.
Across Florida, more than 12,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, and nearly 2,500 of them were in intensive care unit beds. The state is averaging nearly 18,000 new cases a day, up from fewer than 2,000 during the first week of July. In all, Florida has seen more than 39,100 coronavirus deaths.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has stood firm against mask rules and other compulsory measures, saying it is important to keep Florida’s economy moving.
“Florida is a free state, and we will empower our people. We will not allow Joe Biden and his bureaucratic flunkies to come in and commandeer the rights and freedoms of Floridians,” DeSantis, who has been exploring a possible for president in 2024, said in a fundraising email Wednesday.
The reversal in fortune for some hospitals has been stark.
In central Florida, AdventHealth hospitals had 1,350 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, the most ever. The health care system has postponed non-emergency surgery and limited visitors to concentrate on treating coronavirus patients.
Less than two months ago, Miami's Baptist Hospital had fewer than 20 COVID-19 patients and was closing down coronavirus units. By Monday, hospital officials were reopening some of those units to handle an influx of more than 200 new virus patients.
“As fast as we are opening up units, they’re being filled with COVID patients,” said Dr. Sergio Segarra, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
In Georgia, more than two dozen hospitals said this week that they have had to turn away patients as the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 has risen to 2,600 statewide.
And in Louisiana, smaller hospitals are struggling to find larger, better-equipped ones to take in their more seriously ill patients.
Lee Chastant, CEO of West Feliciana Hospital in the state’s rural southeast, said a COVID-19 patient was in the ER about two days until the staff could finally transfer the person to New Orleans.
The swift turn of events has been disheartening for health care workers who just weeks ago thought the battle was in its final stages. The crisis is also making it harder for hospitals to provide other crucial types of medical care.
“If you don’t get vaccinated, you are taking resources from people who have diseases or injuries or illnesses,” said Dr. Vincent Shaw, a family physician in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “COVID doesn’t call people who have had strokes, who have had heart attacks, who have had other horrific or traumatic things happen and say, ’Y’all take the week off. I am going to take over the ER and the ICU.'”
In Florida, Judi Custer said she and her husband did everything they were told to do to ward off the virus. The Fort Lauderdale retirees got vaccinated and wore masks, even when the rules were lifted. Still, they fell ill with COVID-19 a few weeks ago, and 80-year-old Doug Custer was hospitalized for five days.
Judy Custer said she still believes more people need to get vaccinated.
“We’ve had it long enough to know it is helping people, even if they get sick with it,” she said. “You’re less likely to be put on a ventilator. You’re less likely to be hospitalized.”