A rapid rise in Covid-19 hospitalizations in parts of the country with lagging vaccination rates is causing alarm.
July 23, 2021Updated 3:50 p.m. ET
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 couldn’t 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, Ms. Wells was unvaccinated. She had worried, she said, that the shots were not safe.
“I was misinformed,” Ms. 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.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Dr. Leon L. Haley Jr., the chief executive 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 percent 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 percent of all new cases nationwide. Greene County in southwestern Missouri reported 259 Covid-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday, up from a previous high of 237 on Dec. 1. By Wednesday, that number was 265.
About a 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.
“If we were able to get more people vaccinated earlier than this,” Dr. Haley said, “we probably wouldn’t be here.”
The rate of fully vaccinated people 18 and older in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, is about 52 percent, behind the statewide average of 58 percent and the national average of 60 percent. In comparison, Miami-Dade County, the largest county in Florida, where Covid cases have also ballooned, has vaccinated about 72 percent.
At UF Health Jacksonville, Dr. Haley said that 90 percent of Covid patients were unvaccinated and 5 percent were not fully vaccinated. The remaining 5 percent were vaccinated but also had significant comorbidities or were on immunosuppressant drugs.
Eighteen Covid patients — all of them unvaccinated — had died as of Wednesday so far this month, compared to four in June. The median patient age, which before June had been 57, has since dropped to 52.
Florida’s leaders expected a summer wave. For many weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said that the coronavirus would likely return in bigger numbers — as it did last summer, to devastating effect — because hotter temperatures drive people indoors, into the air-conditioning.
“It’s a seasonal virus, and this is the seasonal pattern it follows in the Sun Belt states,” he said on Monday.
But Mr. DeSantis, a possible 2024 Republican presidential hopeful who has seen his popularity among conservatives skyrocket for bucking some federal guidelines related to public health and being early to reopen Florida’s economy, insisted that — summer wave or not — the state would not impose any new mandates. (Florida never instituted a statewide mask mandate, though local governments did.)
If the Biden administration decides to require masks in schools, the governor said on Thursday that he would convene a special session of the State Legislature to try to outlaw it. Earlier this month, his 2022 re-election campaign began selling beer koozies emblazoned with “Don’t Fauci My Florida.”
Mr. DeSantis garnered attention this week for saying, “These vaccines are saving lives,” a line that was seen as similar to other national Republicans and conservative figures who recently have been more forcefully endorsing the shots. Mr. DeSantis has heavily promoted the vaccines from the start, though he has faced occasional criticism for not having received his Johnson & Johnson dose in public.
The DeSantis administration focused on vaccinating older people more vulnerable to succumbing to the virus. The governor has blamed lower vaccination rates among younger people on what he calls muddled messages and poor decisions from the federal authorities, including continuing to encourage mask use after vaccination and briefly pausing the J.&J. vaccine, a step Mr. DeSantis said was followed by a noticeable plunge in demand.
The governor and state lawmakers enacted legislation this year prohibiting local officials from instituting public health mandates, a move that county and city mayors have said leaves them unable to do much to confront the new virus uptick.
Last week, Mayor Jerry Demings of Orange County, home to Orlando, recommended that residents, regardless of their vaccination status, once again wear masks indoors in public. But Mr. Demings, a Democrat, acknowledged he could not require them to do so.
“I wish that there were more that I could do to protect you,” he said.
In a news conference on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis said that, at this point, getting a vaccine is a matter of personal responsibility.
“We have three vaccines that have been widely available for months and months now,” he said. “People have to make decisions on what’s best for them.”
While Miami’s Jackson Health System, the state’s biggest public hospital, has reported a jump in hospitalizations to 171, they are nowhere near last summer’s peak of 485. But doctors said they are increasingly concerned about how many more younger people are arriving with serious Covid symptoms. Dr. Lilian M. Abbo, Jackson’s head of infectious diseases, said she worried some of those patients would eventually require lung transplants.
Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, a Republican, held a virtual news conference with hospital administrators on Wednesday to implore unvaccinated people to get a shot. The administrators also urged mask use, social distancing and hand washing, though Mr. Curry made clear he would adopt no citywide policies to promote those behaviors.
“The math is clear: Vaccines work,” he said. “Restrictions to our economy and personal freedoms are not the answer. The answer is getting vaccinated.”
Asked if the city planned any new drives or other steps to get more people vaccinated, Mr. Curry said no, at least not yet.
“It’s a process that takes time,” he said of persuading people to trust the vaccines. “There’s been misinformation and misunderstanding.”
Dr. Ragu Murthy, a cardiologist at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside hospital in Jacksonville, said he asks every patient if they have been vaccinated, because many of them with serious heart conditions would be at high risk if they contract Covid.
“Initially, I think I was pretty successful in convincing a lot of patients,” he said. “Lately, unfortunately, it’s the people who are very resistant. I still make an attempt, because in my mind, I feel like this is the most important thing to talk to them about — even more important than their cardiology care.”
He feels he has gotten the best response to the argument that vaccines provide a protective shield for family members, notably for children younger than 12.
In recent days, he said, more people have been receptive to his pleas, in part because they are seeing the new surge.
“They had in their mind that everyone else was getting vaccinated, so I don’t need to get the vaccine; I’m still protected, because Covid is almost over,” he said. “And now they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.