Jacksonville’s safety net hospital is staring down grave challenges as the delta variant of COVID-19 crushes the Northeast Florida region.
For weeks now, case counts and the percentage of positive tests have surged, and at UF Health, ER and ICU resources are stretched thin as visitation has been cut. Elective surgeries requiring in-patient stays have been curtailed for the moment. CEO Leon Haley discussed the changes in a Friday conference call and outlined the tough path ahead for the hospital.
“The numbers are frightening,” Haley said, noting that vaccinations didn’t happen quickly enough to stop this latest surge. Cases surged locally in the last 10 days, especially among those who have yet to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Northeast Florida’s low vaccination rate has exacerbated the problem.
“There has been a lot of vaccine hesitancy,” Haley said. That includes staff, with roughly 60% of staffers unvaccinated.
The growth in case count at UF Health was quick. Cases were in the single digits just last month. Now, COVID-19 has created a capacity crisis not just in the ICU but also in terms of mental health.
“COVID is still here. The cases are still rising,” Haley noted. “June 18, we had 12 COVID patients. Now, we have 150. On July 16, we had 68.”
Additionally, 100 staffers are in virus quarantine, making the problem even more acute.
Younger people are getting sick. The average age of patients is 52. Three of five patients are male, and 50% are African American. Two of the poorest zip codes in the city, 32208 and 32209, are seeing the worst of it. And growth is on a “straight line,” with more patients now than even the peak of the crisis last year. Most of that growth came in the last couple of weeks.
Haley noted vaccines work, but cautioned “none of the vaccines are 100% protective” and never were.
“We certainly have seen people who are vaccinated test positive, but none of them have been hospitalized,” Haley said. “Vaccines have done a tremendous job keeping people out of the hospital.”
All told, 88% of those hospitalized are entirely unvaccinated, Haley said.
Chad Neilsen, the hospital’s director of infection prevention, pointed out that lines around the Department of Health building run around the block for testing. He cautioned that vaccinations take weeks to work, meaning the shots are not silver bullets to stop this surge, even if people suddenly begin getting them.
The Florida Department of Health ‘s latest stats run through July 15 and the numbers tell the tale. More than 21% of those tested in Duval were positive for the virus, with 4,428 new cases and just 5,092 vaccinated during the week.
Other nearby counties had even uglier numbers. In Baker County that week, more than 30% of tests were positive, and those virus cases again outstripped vaccinations.
“Duval County is lagging behind. Baker is one of the worst in the state,” Haley said about vaccine rates.