Florida breaks record for COVID-19 hospitalizations again

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Florida rose to an all-time high of 11,515 patients in one day, according to data the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Tuesday.

Governor insists he will not impose a mask mandate or restrictions on businesses

A critical care respiratory therapist works with a COVID-19 patient at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 11. The state hit an all-time high of 11,515 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down Tuesday as the state again broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, insisting that the spike will soon abate and that he will not impose any business restrictions or mask mandates. 

With the much more contagious delta variant now spreading exponentially, Florida had 11,515 hospitalized patients Tuesday, breaking last year's record for the third straight day. Hospitalizations have increased 11 times over the 1,000 COVID patients hospitalized in mid-June. About 2,400 patients are now in intensive care. 

DeSantis said he expects hospitalizations to drop in the next couple weeks, asserting that the spike is seasonal as Floridians spend more time together indoors to escape the summer heat and humidity.

DeSantis credited his response to COVID-19, which has focused on vaccinating seniors and nursing home residents, for the fact that fewer Floridians are dying now than last August. A year ago, Florida was averaging about 180 COVID-19 deaths per day during an early August spike, but last week averaged 58 per day. Deaths don't spike until a few weeks after hospitalizations as the disease usually takes weeks to kill. 

This May 4, 2021 file photo shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking during a news conference at West Miami Middle School in Miami. DeSantis signed an executive order blocking mask mandates in schools. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/The Associated Press)

"Even among a lot of positive tests, you are seeing much less mortality that you did year-over-year," he said at a Miami-area news conference. "Would I rather have 5,000 cases among 20-year-olds or 500 cases among seniors? I would rather have the younger."

DeSantis also said "media hysteria" on the swelling numbers could cause people suffering from a heart attack or stroke to avoid going to an emergency room for fear of being infected. Doctors interviewed by The Associated Press acknowledged that this happened during the early months of the pandemic, but say it's no longer true, and that they're treating the usual number of cardiac patients.

'Almost like a war-zone scenario'

Hospitals around the state report having to put emergency room visitors in beds in hallways and others document a noticeable drop in the age of patients. Some hospitals are again banning visitors or postponing elective surgeries.

"They're just coming in faster than we discharge them," said Justin Senior, CEO of Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance, which represents some of the state's largest hospitals caring for low-income patients. Still, he said few hospitals will run out of room as they can convert non-traditional spaces like conference areas into COVID-19 wards if needed. 

Dr. O'Neil Pyke, chief medical officer at Jackson North Medical Center in Miami, said his doctors, nurses and other staff are again facing exhaustion. Treating COVID-19 patients is labour intensive and many Florida hospitals are facing staffing shortages. 

"Some nurses are describing this almost like a war-zone scenario," he said. 

Josaphet Ramos, 8, gets a swab test by a health-care worker at a COVID-19 mobile testing site hosted by the Manatee County Florida Department of Health in Palmetto, Fla., on Monday. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

DeSantis is running for re-election next year while eyeing a 2024 presidential bid. A central tenet of his national image among conservatives is his refusal to impose mask mandates at schools and in public or to impose restrictions on businesses. He hit that message again Tuesday, saying he will not budge.

"We are not shutting down," DeSantis said. "We are going to have schools open. We are protecting every Floridian's job in this state. We are protecting people's small businesses. These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic, not just in the United States but abroad. They have not stopped the spread, particularly with delta."

DeSantis did encourage people to get vaccinated, saying while it is not a perfect barrier against the disease the shots do provide a strong defence against getting seriously ill. About 95 per cent of those hospitalized and almost all recent deaths have been among the unvaccinated, hospital officials have said. The Florida counties with the lowest vaccination rates and some of the highest per-capita hospitalizations are heavily Republican. 

"You can still test positive, but at the end of the day you can turn this from something that was much more threatening to a senior citizen, say, to something that is more manageable," said DeSantis, who has been vaccinated. "That is a huge, huge thing."

The spike has come amid a power struggle between DeSantis and local officials over how to protect children and staff as the school year begins. 

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Despite Canada having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, that might not be enough to slow the spread of COVID-19 driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

Broward County's school board voted last week to require facial coverings when in-person learning resumes this month, enforcing the latest recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the board reversed itself after DeSantis signed an executive order preventing mask mandates in schools, and empowering the state to deny funding to any districts that don't comply. 

Broward's board had responded to the latest science on the virus, which suggests that while vaccinated people are extremely unlikely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, they can still spread infection among those who haven't had their shots. This revelation prompted the CDC to recommend "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

'This is horrifying'

"Unfortunately, Dade and Broward County lead the nation in hospitalizations," Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said Monday. "The numbers are doubling every 10 or 11 days. Geometric progression. This is horrifying."

The Republican governor said he wants parents to decide whether their children should wear a mask to school. He also claimed the outbreak is seasonal, caused by people gathering indoors to avoid Florida's heat and humidity.

A law DeSantis signed in May gives him power to invalidate local emergency public health measures, including mask mandates and limitations on business operations. It also bans any business or government entity from requiring proof of vaccination. 

The Broward district now says it will encourage, but not require, students age 12 and older, as well as teachers and staff to get vaccinated. It will also encourage the use of facial coverings.

"Safety remains our highest priority," the district's statement said.