WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County leaders on Tuesday declared a local state of emergency to hopefully improve what officials call a "disturbing" shortage of hospital resources for COVID-19 patients.
"We are in the most challenging point of COVID-19 from a public health perspective since the onset of this pandemic," Mayor Dave Kerner said.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay proposed the emergency order after all 12 ICU beds at Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade quickly filled up, including 11 of them with COVID-19 patients.
The shortage forced the hospital to transfer emergency room patients to medical centers in Miami and Orlando, among others.
"We do not have the resources available right now in our community to address the needs in certain parts of our community," McKinlay said during Tuesday's county commission meeting.
Officials said the state of emergency may allow Palm Beach County to bring in additional medical personnel from other parts of the state and country, and will also direct the private health care system to transmit real-time data regarding COVID-19 hospital bed availability.
Darcy Davis, the CEO of the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, said there's currently no way to see which local hospital ICU wards are specifically accepting COVID-19 patients.
"When you look at a dashboard and it says, hey, there's bed availability, that may not be for a COVID positive patient," Davis said. "So it's very difficult for us when we're looking to rely on the system."
Davis said that in one case at Lakeside Medical Center, officials called 13 hospitals in Palm Beach County to accept a COVID-19 patient, and not one of them said yes.
"There are so many patients, it's overwhelming a lot of the hospitals," Davis said.
McKinlay said emergency rooms are so packed with coronavirus patients, some ambulances have had to wait hours outside hospitals before a sick person could be admitted.
"We have observed some delays at some facilities," said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Reginald Duren. "We're certainly challenged, but we're working through it as best we can."
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said it may be difficult for the county to get additional medical personnel because the current surge of COVID-19 cases is happening on a national level.
"It's happening everywhere at the same time," Alonso said. "And the fact that it's happening all over the state, all over the country, it's difficult to get resources from other places."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus
In a grim presentation, Alonso said Palm Beach County had 9,159 new COVID-19 cases between Aug. 6 and 12, and the county's daily COVID-19 positivity rate was 17.8% during that time.
Just months ago, between May 28 and June 3, the county only had 719 new cases and a daily positivity rate of 3.2%
"We have over 1,000 cases per day," Alonso said. "That means that there is very, very wide community spread and that people are getting sick and people are being hospitalized."
Alonso -- who solemnly believes we won't hit our peak of the pandemic for at least four weeks -- said the highly contagious delta variant accounted for 93% of all COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County as of Aug. 7.
The health director added that coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are all working against the variant, but for how long?
"The danger in terms of variant is that once this variant has taken control and is the dominant virus, will it then get to the point that it mutates sufficient that the vaccine will not work?" Alonso said. "In that case, a new vaccine has to be created to specifically deal with that particular variant."
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According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, 58% of people ages 12 and older in Palm Beach County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
In what she called a "hopeful" sign, Alonso said the 12-to-19 and 20-to-29 age groups -- which include school-aged children -- have increased their vaccination rates.
"Those are the ones that are being brought in with their parents to get vaccinated," Alonso said. "We are vaccinating more people. That is good. The only problem is we're not vaccinating fast enough to deal with the virus is spreading so quickly."
Health officials on Tuesday said the state will open a monoclonal antibody treatment center in Palm Beach County -- possibly by the end of the week -- to treat symptomatic COVID-19 patients.
"We will be able to treat people for COVID before they get severely ill," Alonso said.
This is part of a statewide effort to offer monoclonal antibody treatments -- which are lab-created proteins that fight off viruses -- and lower hospitalization rates.
Speaking in Orlando on Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said treatments like Regeneron have proven to "radically reduce" the chance of hospitalizations.
"At the end of the day, reducing hospital admissions has gotta be a top priority," DeSantis said. "People don't go the hospital to begin with, they're gonna recover."
Alonso and county leaders on Tuesday once again emphasized your best protection against the coronavirus continues to be the vaccine.
Data from recent weeks shows that unvaccinated children and younger adults account for 98% of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
"Very important. You do not have to be one of these people in the hospital," Alonso said. "Please, get vaccinated for you, your family, and for the whole community, and for the whole medical system that's being stressed out to the max right now."