Florida hospitals filling as coronavirus spread looms amid holiday travel

'We face that risk of overwhelming the capacities,' doctor says
Posted at 3:48 PM, Dec 18, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Florida works to rebound, new federal data shows its hospitals are some of the fullest. That has frontline health workers alarmed as the holidays and an increased risk of spreading COVID-19 approaches.

"We're seeing a very rapid rise in cases from Nov. 30 to Dec. 13," said Dr. Anil Suryaprasad, an internal medicine specialist in the Jacksonville area. "They are attributed to what has already happened as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday, and entirely expected that the same will occur over Christmas and New Year's."

During a digital news conference with reporters earlier this week, Suryaprasad and several other physicians from across Florida were urging mask use and other protections to ease virus demand on medical facilities.

Dr. Anil Suryaprasad
"We face that risk of overwhelming the capacities of our hospitals," said Dr. Anil Suryaprasad, who practices internal medicine in Jacksonville, Fla.

Personal vigilance, said Suryaprasad, was vital to keeping the Florida health care system functioning effectively.

"We face that risk of overwhelming the capacities of our hospitals to even be able to care for our COVID patients, let alone other patients," said Suryaprasad. "And if that were to happen, that's when you see deaths rapidly rise akin to what happened in New York at the beginning of the epidemic in March, April."

The most recent federal data from the Department of Health and Human Services listed Florida as the No. 6 state in the nation for hospital capacity. About 78% of all its beds are in use as of this week. That is higher than the national average (71%) and close to where it was during the summer surge in July (79%).

"Right now, we have a little bit more than 5,000 hospitalizations for COVID around the state," said Mary Mayhew, who heads the Florida Hospital Association.

The CEO said COVID-19 hospitalizations are half of what they were this summer, but facilities are seeing more non-coronavirus admissions.

Mary Mayhew
Mary Mayhew, former Florida Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration

"It is the combined pressure of the COVID hospitalizations and non-COVID hospitalizations and as we head into flu season," she said.

The good news is that hospitals are more prepared than the spring and summer months, the CEO said. Personal protective equipment, like gloves and masks, is more abundant. Mayhew also believed facilities would be more ready to convert standard rooms quickly into extra intensive care space.

Occupancy issues aside, a more immediate issue seems to be staffing. The latest White House COVID-19 report, courtesy of ABC News, shows 11% of the state's hospitals have shortages. The report noted a 2% increase from the week prior.

"The biggest challenge we face is the workforce," said Mayhew. "There are nurses that are leaving the bedside because of what they’ve had to endure for so long."

Mayhew hoped vaccinations would help the shortages, keeping hospital employees immune and working in the coming weeks. She predicted overall demand would be reduced as mass inoculation started next year.

"We are focused on a level of preparedness, enthusiastic about the hope on the horizon," Mayhew said.

When it comes to hospitalizations in Florida, here are some things to remember:

  • COVID hospitalizations are half of what they were in the summer
  • Still, Florida is No. 7 for hospital capacity -- 78% of all beds in use
  • Officials say non-COVID-19 admissions are boosting those numbers
  • Staff shortages are the biggest concern
  • To ease hospital demand, medical experts recommend mask-wearing and getting vaccinated when possible