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'There's no area harder hit than Jacksonville' | Florida Hospital Association official calls Jacksonville 'epicenter' of pandemic in Florida

Spokespeople for a few of the hospitals in Jacksonville said they've activated parts of their emergency response plans to fight this surge of COVID-19.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A day after Florida reported the highest number of COVID hospitalizations in one day since the start of the pandemic, Monday, that record was shattered.

According to the Florida Hospital Association, 10,389 COVID patients were in hospitals across the state Monday. Hundreds of those patients are in hospitals in Jacksonville.

"Jacksonville right now is really the epicenter of the pandemic here across Florida," Marc Lotter, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Education for the Florida Hospital Association, said. "There's no area harder hit than Jacksonville."

On Sunday, Mayo Clinic staff in Jacksonville sent an email to city officials saying the hospital is over capacity and that they've activated their surge plan. 

Mayo said it exceeded its capacity of 304 licensed beds "due to significant increase in COVID-19 inpatients." The hospital will now use unlicensed beds, the email said.

"I think every hospital in the city, and in fact, many across the state, are very full at this time, if not over capacity," Dr. Elizabeth Devos, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at UF Health Jacksonville, said.

Devos works in the emergency room. UF Health isn't at capacity, but she said hospital leadership is constantly evaluating things. 

“If we look at the numbers from June, we had 14 COVID patients admitted, and now we're around 220," Devos said. "So, certainly, our numbers are much higher. And each day, it seems that there's a little bit more than the day before."

By Monday afternoon, the number of COVID patients system-wide was up to 238. Three were pediatric patients. Fifty-six of the 238 were in the ICU. That's 11 more patients total than Sunday, and three more in the ICU than Sunday, according to hospital data. 

"We're seeing so many patients admitted with COVID, and that is causing increasing numbers of hospital beds being used all over," Devos said. "So here, we're definitely seeing that we are having to be creative, and how we move patients through the hospital to make sure that we are having space for those who need our care 100 percent of the time." 

Devos has worked at UF Health for more than 15 years. She said she's never seen anything like this current surge of COVID.

"It's a difficult time for our staff and our our patients and, you know, everybody has really stepped up to be here to make sure that we have the ability to give excellent care for all kinds of emergencies for our patients and we'll continue to do that," she said. 

The patients are younger and healthier when they first arrive, but end up getting sicker with this surge, according to Devos. More than 90 percent of them aren't vaccinated.

According to Lotter, the average age of COVID patients at one of the hospitals in Jacksonville is 42-years-old.

"I understand what you heard last winter, that COVID-19 was really something that was really only scary to the folks who had pre-existing health conditions or are seniors. That's not true anymore," Lotter said. "W know of 25-year-ods that are on ventilators who had no pre-existing health conditions. So, what you heard last year, what you heard last winter, isn't true anymore with this delta variant, and that's the reason why you need to go and get that vaccination," Lotter said.

When asked why she thinks Jacksonville is the epicenter now for the state, as Lotter called it, Devos said it could be a mix of things.

"I think that the vaccine rate is one of the things, and we certainly were quick to try to go back to as normal life as we could," Devos said. "People were not masking people are indoors and events, and I think we realize that those are some things that we need to be careful about."

In Duval County, 50.6 percent of people have had at least one dose; 42 percent are fully vaccinated.

"I think also here in Florida, we see that people are traveling from other parts of the country where they may have stricter rules, and were excited to come here, and so we're having a mixing of, the different people's exposures here in Florida," Devos said.

Baptist Health said it activated parts of its Emergency Response Plan in early July. It has 1,190 licensed beds system-wide and has added more than 100 beds to accommodate the current surge.

Last week, the director of Baptist's emergency rooms said they're using "nooks and crannies" of the ER to treat patients, including conference rooms and break rooms. 

Towards the end of July, Baptist South opened a "COVID Care Expansion Unit" in a “shell space in hospital” that has walls, windows, HVAC, restrooms but no interior improvements or finishes. It has 20 beds, and was opened "to care for the increased number of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals," a spokesperson said.

On Monday, Baptist Health had 507 COVID patients system-wide, including 95 that were in the ICU. Ten were children at Wolfson Children's Hospital, and three of those 10 were in the ICU. 

On Sunday, the hospital system admitted 73 COVID patients. A spokesperson said more than 90 percent of COVID patients 12 and older are not fully vaccinated. 

"It's very disturbing what we're seeing right now," Lotter said.

According to Lotter, some hospitals in Jacksonville are double their previous peak right now. 

"What we're also seeing is how great our hospitals and those hospital staff are in responding to emergencies, so they're able to transition rooms and areas into ICU level care," he said. 

Lotter explained the Association is and has been talking to state officials to bring out-of-state resources to Florida to help with the surge. 

Lotter also talked about Florida breaking the record for the most cases of COVID in a single day this past weekend.

“When we had the previous peak, it took us 60 days to go from 2,000 cases statewide to more than 10,000," Lotter explained. "We've gone from 2,000 cases at the beginning of July, to now well over 10,000 cases here at the beginning of August. So, what happened in two months last year has happened in less than one month this year."

He said one of the most important things right now is making sure hospitals have enough staff to handle the influx of patients, COVID or not. 

There's no shortage of PPE, he said, but they are seeing a shortage of staff. He said they saw a shortage of healthcare workers before the pandemic and now it has been exacerbated. 

“If you're a healthcare worker or a hospital worker out there, and I know that there's a very diverse group of people who come from all walks of lives and all backgrounds and all different beliefs, but the one thing we've got to agree on is that now more than ever, we need you by the bedside and not in a hospital beds," Lotter said. 

"So, if you can get the vaccine and haven't done so yet, take advantage of this opportunity get vaccinated because your service to your community is so absolutely critical. And our hospitals have not needed you at any time more than they do right now," Lotter continued.

Mayo Clinic announced last week it would require the vaccine for all employees. Baptist Health said it is assessing a requirement.

First Coast News also reached out to other area hospitals regarding capacity and surge plans. A spokesperson for Ascension St. Vincent's said the hospital "has effectively implemented the appropriate phases of our surge plans" to care for patients. When pressed for details, the spokesperson said that's all they're releasing at this time.

FCN also asked the city how it plans to address the surge at hospitals. The mayor's office responded with the following statement:

"Mayor Curry and his administration continue to work with hospital leaders as we navigate through this surge. According to these medical facilities, nearly 98% of those being treated for COVID-19 in our area hospitals did not receive the vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine continues to be our greatest tool in battling this virus. If you are eligible to receive this vaccine, we strongly encourage you to do so.”

All of the hospitals say if you are experiencing an emergency, come to the hospital. If you are experiencing a life-threatening issue, you'll be seen immediately. If not, they say, you will have a longer wait than usual, but won't be turned away. 

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