Miami-Dade hospitals face a growing challenge from the latest COVID wave, one where people who haven’t been vaccinated are pushing admission levels closer to where they were during last summer’s spike in coronavirus cases.
So far, Miami-Dade’s major hospitals aren’t facing quite the same pace of COVID admissions that hit them this time last year, according to reports Miami-Dade released Monday. The results come from new mandated daily reporting for all hospitals in Miami-Dade on COVID-related data, including the portion of infected patients vaccinated for the virus.
On Monday, 24 hospitals in Miami-Dade reported 1,389 patients with COVID, compared to about 1,800 a year ago. For now, 20% of COVID patients are being treated in intensive care units; a year ago, nearly 30% were in ICU wards.
Even if the hospital numbers aren’t setting new records, administrators say they’re preparing for worsening trends and already finding challenges with having enough employees for the added care and isolation needed for COVID-19 patients.
“Staffing is very much an issue,” said Dr. Sergio Segarra, an emergency physician and chief medical officer for Baptist Hospital Miami, one of the largest medical facilities in Miami-Dade.
About a third of ventilated patients in Miami-Dade have COVID
For now, patients with COVID aren’t overwhelming critical-care resources. The latest hospital report showed that of the roughly 550 ventilators in use, about a third of them went to patients with COVID. Roughly 800 ventilators remain available countywide.
The starkest difference between the two summer surges comes from COVID vaccines, which didn’t exist a year ago. Now they’ve been administered to about 71% of the population age 12 or older, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
Though people who aren’t vaccinated make up a minority of the county’s population, they appear to dominate the population of COVID cases in Miami-Dade hospitals.
Almost 9 out of 10 COVID patients aren’t vaccinated
The hospitals reported that since Friday, they’ve admitted 422 new patients with COVID.
Of those patients, 45 were vaccinated — meaning 89% of the new COVID patients haven’t been vaccinated for the virus.
Of the 22 patients with COVID admitted into Baptist on Sunday, only four had been vaccinated, according to the county report.
The newly available daily statistics from Miami-Dade’s major hospitals come from an emergency order Mayor Daniella Levine Cava signed on July 28, reviving required reports from all hospitals on COVID admissions, the availability of ventilators and other pandemic-related data.
Levine Cava canceled the required reports in May as COVID cases were declining and the county lifted most masking rules. With cases spiking again, Levine Cava reimposed mask requirements at county buildings and ordered hospitals to resume daily COVID reports.
The county has only released three days’ worth of data, from July 30 to Aug. 1. For this story, the Miami Herald compared numbers from the 24 hospitals to numbers the same hospitals reported at the end of July in 2020.
While the county’s dashboard provides more insight into the resurgent pandemic’s impact on local hospitals, the data do not reflect the stress on hospital staffing or the severity of illness among patients, said Segarra, of Baptist Hospital.
Baptist Health staffing stretched thin by COVID
Unlike the early surges of the pandemic last year, Baptist Health has plenty of ventilators and surgical masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, he said.
But the rapid rise in patients is stretching staff thin — just two months after Baptist employees could see the pandemic waning.
“In June, we were as low as 18 to 19 patients in our entire hospital,” he said. “We were closing units. Now, we have to open up 20-bed units on a weekly if not twice-a-week basis.”
Baptist reported 211 COVID patients on Sunday at its main hospital in Kendall, with 28 needing intensive-care beds. A year ago, the hospital reported 231 COVID patients, with 99 of them in intensive-care wards.
As a precaution against rising cases, Baptist Health is postponing non-emergency surgeries that require overnight stays, Segarra said. Outpatient procedures continue to take place as scheduled, he said. But there’s little question that Baptist Hospital, like others in Miami-Dade, is concerned about the trend.
“The growth that we’re seeing is exponential,” Segarra said.
Segarra said doctors are also seeing a surge in patients with COVID-19 at the broad network of group practices and urgent care centers affiliated with Baptist Health South Florida, which owns Baptist Hospital Miami and operates 10 more hospitals in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Baptist Health reported 726 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized across its network of hospitals on Monday. At the height of the pandemic for Baptist Health in July 2020, the number of hospitalized patients peaked at 831.
Other COVID metrics are getting closer to where they were last August: Miami-Dade reported a weekly average of 14% positivity rates for COVID tests performed across the county, compared to 18% last year. Miami-Dade’s Fire Rescue Department is responding to an average of 106 suspected COVID calls a day. A year ago, it was 125.
Deaths from COVID, however, are down dramatically from last summer, when as many as 33 were reported in a single day in Miami-Dade. Now, with 84% of the vulnerable 65-and-older population vaccinated, the most Miami-Dade deaths reported from COVID over the last two weeks was six.
As August began last year, a summer COVID-19 spike resulted in closed restaurant dining rooms and a 10 p.m. curfew on top of mandatory mask requirements across the county.
Those kinds of local emergency orders on businesses and individual behavior were curtailed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last fall, then restricted by state law earlier this year.
When she signed the reporting order for hospitals last week, Levine Cava reimposed mask rules for county-owned buildings but only requested that businesses follow suit with their own mask requirements.
In a statement Monday, Levine Cava warned the public that this COVID spike looks as alarming as the one that hit in 2020.
“Miami-Dade — the COVID situation is becoming as dire as it was this time last year,” she said in a Twitter post. “Hospitalizations are climbing at a dangerous rate and our positivity rate is now over 12%. But there’s a key difference from last year: We have the vaccine. Let’s use it.”
At news conference in the Everglades on Tuesday, DeSantis downplayed the surge in hospitalizations and did not address the increasing strain on hospital staff.
“Our hospitals are open for business,’‘ he said, adding that in hospitals with high COVID cases, those patients “represent a fraction of the overall hospital beds.”
He said he hopes people won’t steer clear of hospitals because they are afraid of getting the virus, as people did in the early stages of the pandemic last year. “I don’t want to see a repeat - because of some of the media hysteria - where people who have heart problems or stroke are not going in to get care.”
DeSantis accused the media of “fear mongering” and said that there has been a decline in deaths due to COVID because of his administration’s focus on getting older people vaccinated. But he also suggested that because younger people are likely to have a less severe case, he wasn’t worried about young people getting infected.
“I’d rather have 5,000 cases amongst 20-year-olds than 500 cases among seniors,’‘ he said. “And so I think protecting the vulnerable has been the right way to go.”
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.