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90% Of Florida's Intensive Care Beds Are Taken As COVID-19 Spreads

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Florida's hospitals are reaching a breaking point. As the delta variant spreads across the state, 90% of Florida's intensive care beds are now occupied. In preparation for what might come, the state health department has requested emergency supplies from the federal government. Central Florida's largest hospital system, AdventHealth, is seeing a record number of COVID patients, most of them unvaccinated. And its epidemiologist and executive director of infection prevention, Dr. Vincent Hsu, joins me now from Orlando. Good morning, Dr. Hsu.

VINCENT HSU: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So help us understand how grave the situation is in your hospital system.

HSU: It is. It's a very dire, desperate and critical situation in our hospitals. Currently, in our central Florida hospitals, we have over 1,500 COVID-related hospitalizations. And this is double the peak that we had in January. Our ICUs are completely full, and many of these patients who are in - who need ICU care have, because of space issues, have had to be placed in rooms that are not designed to be ICUs. Forty percent of our admissions are related to COVID, so this is just put an enormous strain on our staff, on supplies and, frankly, the rooms as well. It is really not sustainable.

ELLIOTT: What are you doing in terms of resources? I understand that the state has asked the federal government to send in ventilators and oxygen kits. I know elsewhere, in Mississippi, for example, they were setting up an emergency hospital in a parking deck. What do you do now?

HSU: Well, we have the luxury of being a very large system throughout central Florida, throughout Florida, as well as much of the Southeast. So we are able to utilize supplies that can come in from other areas. But as an example, two weeks ago, we ordered a hundred additional ventilators as - recognizing that there was going to be a surge that could continue. And right - as of now, we've used them all up, and we need to get more. So these are - you know, these are issues that we're having to deal with, you know.

And the one good news that we do have enough of is personal protective equipment, or PPE. That was something that we did not have as much in last year, but we have plenty of that right now. But there are still other issues with supplies. But staffing, really, right now is the main issue. We need more people, and we've been redeploying our staff members to be doing things that they don't normally do. We've stopped elective surgeries. And so as a result, we've - we can redeploy some of the patients - some of the staff that are actually in the ORs to be taking care of patients.

ELLIOTT: It sounds like to me that you're anticipating that this surge is going to get worse before it gets better.

HSU: Well, we haven't hit our peak yet. Today's numbers are at all-time highs. We - you know, there may have been a slowing. We - maybe the slowing is indicative of a peak that's yet to come. But we just don't know. And we know that in Florida, the number of new cases that have been diagnosed continue to increase. And generally speaking, the hospitalizations follow that, as well. So we do not want to make any assumptions. We've got to prepare, and we've got to remain prepared like this surge is going to continue for a little while longer.

ELLIOTT: Can we talk a little bit about the patients that you're seeing right now? This delta variant appears to be taking a toll on a younger demographic elsewhere. Is that the case in Florida?

HSU: It is absolutely the case. We are seeing people who are younger. We have adults in their 20s who are on ventilators. We have a greater number of pregnant women who are requiring intensive care, as well. So this is something that we believe is partly attributable, of course, to the delta variant maybe causing more severe illness. But it's also just in part due to the large numbers that are affecting our unvaccinated patients. And the vast majority of the patients that are coming in with COVID-related conditions are unvaccinated.

ELLIOTT: OK.

HSU: This is something that we wish didn't have to happen. But, you know - and we still want to do what we can to get those that are unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

ELLIOTT: You know, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has, you know, come out against mask mandates. He doesn't like public health restrictions that are being urged by the CDC. He's even banned local school districts from requiring face coverings and is selling campaign merchandise that boasts you can't drink a beer while wearing a mask. What has been the impact, do you think, of the governor's approach to fighting this pandemic?

HSU: It is clear, Debbie, that more needs to be done. Right now, the way things are going on in Florida, there's just way too much spread of that virus. We do know - the science is very clear; the public health implications are very clear - that wearing masks, especially during this time when you have a crisis, is extremely important in preventing spread. Social distancing and, of course, vaccinations - these are public health measures that we know work. They worked last year. They will work again this year. And unfortunately, right now in our community, it is not going well.

ELLIOTT: Sorry to hear that. Dr. Vincent Hsu, executive director of infection prevention at Florida's Advent Hospital Group (ph). Thank you so much for your time, and best of luck.

HSU: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.