Local hospitals feel strain of surging COVID-19 cases

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas County, updates county commissioners on the COVID-19 situation during an Aug. 10 meeting.

LARGO — COVID-19 cases are increasing. The positivity rate is up. The emergency medical services system and local hospitals are struggling to keep up. More people need to be vaccinated.

Those were the messages communicated when the director of the Department of Health in Pinellas County, Dr. Ulyee Choe, and the county’s Emergency Medical Services medical director Dr. Angus Jameson, updated county commissioners on the COVID-19 situation Aug. 10.

Choe said the number of cases was increasing as were hospitalizations. He said the positivity rate of 16.2% was the highest since the first case was reported in March 2020.

According to the report released by the Florida Department of Health on Aug. 13, 6,434 new cases were reported in Pinellas from Aug. 6-12, or 919 cases a day. The positivity rate was 19.2%.

Choe said more cases were being reported among those ages 20-39.

He also said the death rate was increasing with 40 deaths reported in the last two weeks.

Hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 were the highest they have been at any time, Choe said, including at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Delays for ambulances were continuing at emergency rooms. Some hospitals have canceled elective surgeries.

He said Largo Medical Center was out of ECMO machines, which are used to allow lungs to rest and heal. Jameson added that one hospital was short on ventilators.

Choe said there had been an increase in demand for testing, causing the county to open a new testing center. The new center is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Center for Health Equity, 2333 34th St. S. in St. Petersburg. Testing is free. For more information, call 1-800-232-0233. For more information on testing visit, https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/testing/.

Choe also said there had been an increase in the number getting vaccinated and assured commissioners that vaccine is readily available. He said DOH was continuing to do outreach events to help get more shots in arms.

“We’re continuing to push the vaccines,” he said. “I strongly urge everyone to get vaccinated. We all need to do our part and get vaccinated.”

Jameson talked about the increase of COVID-19 related 911 calls. Transport volumes are up significantly with Jameson comparing it to a busy spring season. He said the number of patients waiting to be offloaded at emergency room was increasing exponentially with wait times of an hour due to hospitals having no space or no staff.

He said staffing was a “very significant issue.” He said some hospitals were looking at employing traveling nurses, but they weren’t readily available as they had been in past outbreaks.

Some calls are coming from assisted living facilities and nursing homes, he said, but calls also are coming in from younger patients, ages 20-50.

He said about 20-35% of all patients in the hospitals had COVID-19 and that intensive care units were filling up.

“It’s clear this surge is affecting a younger cohort of people,” he said. “The rapid increase and instability is putting a significant strain on the emergency medical system and hospitals.”

County Administrator Barry Burton said county staff was doing all it could to help, adding that the only way out of the situation is the vaccine.

“It is real,” he said. “If you’re willing to get the vaccine, do so. We’re not suggesting actions or mandates. We’re just outlining the situation in the community and the solution is the vaccine.”

Hospitals report that about 80-90% of the COIVID patients are unvaccinated.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters wanted to make sure the public knew it is still safe to go to the hospital. “I don’t want people to be afraid to go to the hospital,” she said. “I don’t want people dying unnecessarily.”

Jameson agreed and said he had seen some reluctance in people wanting to go because they are scared.

“But hospitals have been doing this and are capable of keeping people safe,” he said.

He said the health care system had protocols that allowed them to care for everyone, but he added his voice to those who are urging people to “get vaccinated.”

About 18 people spoke during citizens to be heard who are opposed to any mandates that would require them to get vaccinated or wear masks. They say either action is a violation of their constitutional rights. Some do not believe that masks work and some are concerned about the safety of the vaccine. Some don’t believe the problem is real.

The consensus among them was that they don’t want government to tell them what to do.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.