JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As new COVID-19 infections surge in Jacksonville, local health experts say an overwhelming majority of cases they’re seeing are the result of the delta variant, now the dominant strain nationwide.
Hospitals say they’re seeing beds fill up quickly and with younger patients who are getting sicker than before. Worse yet, the disease is proving deadly — resulting in 20 deaths this month at one hospital.
Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention and control for UF Health Jacksonville, isn’t surprised by the rising number of cases, and he expects the situation to get worse before it gets better.
RELATED: Florida, Jacksonville COVID-19 cases almost double in 1 week
“When I say majority, more than 90 percent of these cases are being driven by delta across the city, so it’s not surprising that our hospital numbers are rapidly increasing,” Neilsen told News4Jax.
At UF Health, Neilsen said, 20 people have died of COVID-19 since July 1. He said the average age of those dying is 59, 10 years younger than the average age of those who were dying before July.
“We are starting to see mortalities,” he said. “We’ve gone through a long period where we didn’t have any deaths that were due to COVID-19, but that time is over.”
As of Friday, UF Health had 77 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, a 28-percent increase since Monday. Of those patients, 23 were in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
“We’ve seen a continual rise over the last several days. We are seeing somewhere between a 7- and 8-percent increase per day,” said Neilsen, who noted the emergency room is full.
But UF Health isn’t alone. Other hospitals in the area are also seeing new cases increase sharply.
At Baptist Health’s hospitals in Northeast Florida, for instance, there were 184 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, a 38-percent increase since Monday. Thirty-eight of them were in the ICU.
The surge comes as Florida grapples with a growing number of COVID-19 cases. A White House official said the Sunshine State accounts for nearly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of new infections.
News4Jax is hearing that emergency departments at hospitals throughout the city are inundated with patients showing COVID-19 symptoms, and it’s leaving staff and resources stretched to the limit.
Neilsen said part of the issue, at least at UF Health, is that only half of the hospital’s staff is vaccinated, so hospital workers are also getting sick.
“Our staff are getting burned out, our staff is getting COVID in the community just like the community members are,” he said Friday. “We are really starting to struggle.”
Public health experts are stressing the importance of vaccines, noting that most of the patients who are getting very sick and near death have not gotten vaccinated. Only a handful of the ill have had the shot.
That’s why during the White House COVID-19 Task Force’s briefing on Friday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the focus must be on getting people vaccinated.
“There is a clear message that is coming through,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said. “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage.”
Yet there’s a glimmer of hope. Experts say the states with the highest case numbers are seeing more vaccinations.
In the past week, the five states with the most infections, including Florida, had vaccinations rates above the national average.