The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners received its Covid update Tuesday, with one commissioner calling the numbers presented both “astounding and encouraging.”
Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director of the Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Pinellas County, said the area continues to see a significant increase in Covid cases and hospitalizations, in large part due to the highly contagious delta variant. For the last seven days, Pinellas County has recorded an average of 800 cases a day, with 16.2% of those tested coming back positive. Both are the highest levels recorded since the pandemic began.
Choe, who is also an Associate Professor of Medicine with the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said that death rates are starting to increase, with 40 reported in the last two weeks. He also cautioned there is a lag in that data due to the confirmation process that could cause delayed reporting of deaths. He said the pressure put on area hospitals and healthcare systems is one of his biggest concerns, “especially if this trend continues.”
“These are the highest number of hospitalizations at any time during the pandemic,” Choe said.
Hospital groups reported between 25% and 40% of patients are there due to Covid, with many in the 20-39 age range. “Beds are tight,” he said, adding that Covid patients occupy 27% of area ICU beds, and the number of pediatric patients has also risen considerably.
Johns Hopkins All Children’s hospital reported 12 hospitalized Covid patients Tuesday morning, with eight in the ICU. “These are at the higher end of the numbers they have seen throughout the pandemic,” said Choe. In June, All Children’s recorded 12 pediatric Covid patients throughout its health system. In July, that number surged to 181, and through 10 days in August, there have been 90 pediatric patients.
Choe said emergency room delays are increasing, and some health systems have canceled elective surgeries. Some have requested additional ventilators and other Covid-related supplies. Choe also told the commission the entire Tampa Bay region has exhausted its ECMO capacity. An ECMO machine is a cardiopulmonary bypass for severely damaged lungs and aids in life-support. It pumps blood out of the body, adds oxygen, and removes carbon dioxide before pumping the blood back into the body.
“There is no capacity for that at this time,” said Choe.
Testing has gone up, with the DOH reporting 5,000 people tested Monday. Choe said the Pinellas County government site is the best place to go for testing locations. In response to increased demand and schools heading back into session, the DOH recently opened another testing site at the Center for Health Equity – which tested 600 people Monday. Choe said the DOH would open additional testing sites for school staff and students as they return.
Choe said there was some good news on the vaccine front, as vaccine rates have increased with the surge in cases over the last few weeks. He said in July, around 4,500 – 4,600 people were vaccinated a week. In the past two weeks, that number “has jumped up well over 10,000.” Of vaccine-eligible people – those 12 years and older – 65.3% have been vaccinated once, while 57% of the county is fully vaccinated. For those 65 years and older, those percentages increase to 86.1% and 77.6%, respectively.
“As a public health official, as an infectious disease physician and parent, I strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” said Choe. “If we ever want to see this perpetual cycle of Covid waves end, we all need to do our part and get vaccinated.”
The county’s emergency medical services (EMS) are facing similar battles. Dr. Angus Jameson, Medical Director for Pinellas County EMS and board-certified emergency medicine physician, told commissioners that 911 calls related to Covid have increased from 10% to 30%. In addition, 40-50 ambulances wait an hour or more to offload patients due to ER waits daily, “simply because they do not have the space or the staff.” Jameson added that while some calls are coming in from congregate living facilities, it is generally younger patients now in need of assistance.
“So, the EMS system is clearly in a mode where we’re pulling out every available contingency to continue providing excellent care to citizens, but we truly are using every available resource and are running out of any further surge capacity,” said Jameson.
County Administrator Barry Burton said the county is working with organizations to address capacity and staffing issues, along with speeding up the transportation process. However, Burton added that “the way to get out of this is through vaccination.” He said the county would continue to stress the importance of vaccines but is “not suggesting any other actions or mandates.”
“We’re simply outlining that we have a community health issue, it is impacting our health care system, and we have a solution in our vaccination process,” said Burton.
Commissioner Rene Flowers said while the statistics are astounding she is encouraged by the number of people being tested and vaccinated. “That’s absolutely wonderful,” she said.
Burton looked to low diagnosis rates in congregate care facilities as proof that vaccines are working, as those groups are among the most likely to be vaccinated.
“It’s being managed – it’s not the large outbreaks that we saw last year,” said Burton. “That goes to the point that the vaccine works. If we can get to higher levels, it’s manageable.”