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Florida’s hospitals set a bleak pandemic record

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Hospitals in Florida are struggling with more Covid-19 patients than at any point in the pandemic, as the fast spreading Delta variant strains US states with low vaccination rates and few Covid restrictions.

Florida is at the heart of the virus’s latest surge in the US, with its hospitals now holding 12,408 Covid patients, the highest level since the pandemic began, according to a Financial Times analysis of US Department of Health and Human Services data.

Occupancy in the south-eastern US state’s intensive care units is on course to hit an all-time high by this weekend.

“We’re all exhausted, the emergency rooms are overrun, we’re at 100 per cent bed capacity,” said Frederick Southwick, an infectious diseases specialist in Gainesville, Florida, adding that some hospitals have stopped taking elective surgeries.

Other US states are also struggling, with facilities in Louisiana holding more Covid patients in its intensive care units than at the state’s winter peak, and Arkansas and Missouri rapidly approaching the same record.

The bleak situation in those states’ hospitals highlights how the highly transmissible Delta variant has devastated pockets of the US with low vaccine rates. This summer, unlike last year, three effective Covid-19 jabs are available in the US to bring the spread of the virus under control and the vaccines offer widespread protection against severe disease and hospitalisation from Delta.

“The Delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated,” said Mary Mayhew, chief executive of the Florida Hospital Association, which represents more than 200 facilities.

It took 60 days for daily Covid cases in Florida to go from 2,000 to 10,000 in the summer of 2020, she added, but the heightened transmissibility of Delta has meant it took only 30 days to repeat that surge this summer.

The pace of vaccination in US states has become starkly correlated with voters’ political persuasions, with Republicans less willing than Democrats to wear masks or get vaccinated. The most vaccinated states are experiencing little to no rise in new Covid hospitalisations whereas in almost all of the least vaccinated states, numbers are increasing sharply.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that almost a quarter of all new Covid hospitalisations in the US were in Florida.

Although almost half of people in the sunshine state have been fully immunised, in line with the overall US figure, vaccine rates are far lower in rural areas and the state has long had no Covid restrictions, including never having a mask mandate.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, has banned mask mandates and businesses from implementing any new measures. This week President Joe Biden said Republican governors should help or “get out of the way of people trying to do the right thing”.

Schools that required masks have dropped the requirement after DeSantis said he would withhold funding from organisations that did not comply with his ban. “If you’re coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I am standing in your way,” he said on Wednesday. Florida “is a free state”, he added.

“Our governor has prevented local governments from mandating any form of infection control,” Southwick said. “When you don’t have any of those measures in place, the virus spreads like wildfire.”

In other US states, hospitals are similarly being pushed to the brink. Louisiana now has 27 per cent more Covid patients in ICU than at its winter peak, the FT’s analysis shows. Arkansas and Missouri are 97 per cent and 92 per cent of the way respectively to overtaking their winter peaks.

Only 41 per cent of people are fully vaccinated in Missouri while Louisiana and Arkansas are lagging even further behind at 37 per cent. 

Chart showing that in states with the highest vaccination rates, hospitalisations remain low. Where vaccinations are lagging, the virus is surging once again

“These are the darkest days of this pandemic,” Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told reporters this week. “We are no longer giving adequate care to patients.”

The Biden administration has sent surge teams to help health officials in Covid hotspots. Jeff Zients, head of the White House Covid task force, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was helping to expand ambulance capacity in Missouri as its health system struggles under the weight of hospital admissions.

The US announced on Monday that 70 per cent of Americans have now received at least one jab — a month later than the president’s initial target. The pace of vaccinations has slowed since late spring as officials struggle to encourage the vaccine hesitant to get immunised. 

Vaccine rates have slowly started rising in states with low levels such as Alabama and Mississippi, which doctors say is partly explained by people seeing first-hand the severity of the Delta variant. “When they see their friends going on respirators, they’re starting to realise that [the vaccine misinformation] is all exaggeration,” Southwick said.

However, the slow increase will do little to ease the immediate crunch in hospitals since studies show that it takes the body two weeks to acquire an effective immune response after full vaccination. Doctors are therefore bracing themselves for Covid cases to continue to rise.

“It takes several weeks to be protected so [vaccines are] not likely to drive down our hospitalisation rate in the next few weeks,” said Mayhew, adding that she expected the virus to spread throughout Florida until it “runs out of more viable hosts”.

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