MIAMI (AP) -- The number of patients with coronavirus in Florida hospitals continues to drop as infection rates stay high, a sign that while more people are testing positive for the virus, they are not necessarily developing severe illness.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tallied 15,488 patients with COVID-19 in Florida hospitals, an 8% decrease over the past week. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a 7-day average of 21,489 new cases per day in the state, not far from its recent peak of 21,761.
Hospital officials are cautiously optimistic, saying the Jacksonville area hit its peak sooner and the Panhandle and Sarasota area is now feeling strained.
"It looks like if that holds we are on the down slope right now, but it's been a very unpredictable virus," said Justin Senior, CEO of the Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance, which represents some of the largest hospitals in the state. "Overall, the state is still really elevated ... but I think it's heading in the right direction."
At Jackson Memorial Hospital, the numbers are also slowly trickling down, although Chief Medical Officer Dr. Hany Atallah remained on alert.
"Definitely don't let down your guard. We are not out of the woods yet," he said, noting that when the vaccinated stopped wearing masks, the unvaccinated followed and soon there wasn't social distancing or washing of hands.
He stressed the delta variant is highly contagious and that patients are getting sicker faster, especially young patients. And 90% of their COVID patients are unvaccinated.
"Please keep wearing your masks, please get vaccinated. These are things we know that work, hand washing, social distancing ... We've got to be diligent about this."
With the delta variant, regular COVID patients are being hospitalized for about five days, whereas the typical ICU COVID patient was admitted for around 15 days. The number of ICU patients with COVID is still at around 3,500, which Senior says is to be expected as they take more time to be discharged.
Freeing up ICU beds for non-COVID cases is critical as many hospitals across the state have postponed nonemergency surgeries for the past four to five weeks. Experts say those need to resume in the coming weeks to prevent those patients from ending up in the emergency rooms.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continued his state tour Monday touting the use of monoclonal antibodies as a treatment for those who get sick with COVID-19 and to relieve pressure on hospitals.
More than 30,000 people received antibodies at 21 state sites over the past two weeks. But DeSantis complained of resistance from some in the medical community.
"Had this been promoted better, I think you would have kept a lot of people out of the hospitals and saved a lot of lives," he said.
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said the antibodies treatments are reducing hospitalizations, and shared that they helped her 85-year-old mother and 82-year-old aunt, who recently got infected with the virus despite being fully vaccinated.
Another woman helped by the antibodies also joined DeSantis on Monday, after a photo that captured her lying on the floor in pain while waiting for antibody infusions at a Jacksonville treatment sent went viral.
Toma Dean had been battling COVID-19 in and out of emergency rooms for over a week with a fever rising up to 105░F (40.5░C). A doctor suggested the treatment, and her mother told her about the location recently opened by the state.
Health officials urged patients at higher risk of severe COVID illness to get the antibody treatment immediately after testing positive instead of waiting until they are extremely sick. The drugs are supposed to be given within 10 days of initial symptoms when they've been shown to cut rates of hospitalization and death.
"I received the Regeneron and within about 24, 36 hours I knew I was going to make it. I knew that something had drastically changed in me," she said as she struggled to breathe. "I thought I really was leaving Earth. I thought I was leaving. I have two kids, a mother, a boyfriend. I need to be here."