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Mayor, health care leaders encourage vaccinations as COVID-19 cases surge

Local hospitals making changes to visitation policies as they deal with influx of coronavirus patients

“The results are clear. The shots work,” Mayor Lenny Curry said Wednesday during a news conference to address a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – “The results are clear. The shots work,” Mayor Lenny Curry said Wednesday during a news conference to address a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

According to leaders from Jacksonville’s hospitals, who joined Curry on the virtual news conference, nearly all of the patients being admitted for coronavirus have not been fully vaccinated.

“My overall message to the citizens of Jacksonville… is this, please get the vaccine,” Curry said.

He was joined in that plea by the CEOS of UF Health Jacksonville, Mayo Clinic, Baptist, Ascension and Brooks Rehabilitation, and the executive officer of Naval Hospital Jacksonville.

Each of them described a spike in cases at their facilities that are at or near the highest levels they’ve seen during the pandemic.

RELATED: Newly reported COVID-19 cases in Jacksonville double in 1 week | Greater Jacksonville driving Florida’s COVID-19 surge

In Duval County, the Department of Health reports 403,552 people are vaccinated, or about 50% of the eligible population, compared to 58% of people vaccinated statewide. Data show there are 109,603 known cases of the virus in Duval and 2,406,809 in Florida.

Curry said about 800 people are currently hospitalized in Duval County with the virus.

“That’s a heavy load on our doctors, our nurses, all of our health care workers,” Curry said.

Curry encouraged anyone looking for a vaccine to go to Vaccines.gov and type in their ZIP code to find a vaccine offered nearby. He said the system allows you to sort by type of shot, so you can choose whether you’re getting Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccines available at hundreds of sites in Northeast Florida

Despite the spike in cases, Curry said he will not be implementing any stay-at-home restrictions or reinstating the city’s mask mandate.

“There is significant economic and health risk associated with shutting down our economy and locking people in their homes. We have a vaccine now that’s effective. Hospitals are full and busy because of unvaccinated people. The solution here is to get the vaccine,” Curry said. “Shutting down our economy, locking our kids in their homes, in my view is not the answer. We have a vaccine that is effective, so let’s go get it done.”

Dr. Kent Thielin, CEO of Mayo Clinic, said the reason cases are higher now than before a vaccine was available is because of the delta variant.

“It’s highly contagious. High viral loads. Easily spread, so it’s easier to spread among those who are not vaccinated,” Thielen said. “There’s a small percentage where we’re seeing breakthrough cases (of those who are vaccinated). That’s why we’re contributing to similar levels of hospitalizations to what we had when there wasn’t the delta variant.”

The push is on from the mayor and hospital administrators to increase the vaccination rate in Jacksonville.

Dr. Timothy Groover, chief medical officer of Baptist Health, said in addition to mostly being unvaccinated patients, the surge in coronavirus cases is also shifting the demographics of the pandemic.

“Back in March of 2020, we were viewing this as a disease of older adults, especially those with chronic medical conditions, but today, we are seeing those who are otherwise young and healthy end up in our hospitals and even in our ICU on ventilators,” Groover said.

He said over the past month at Baptist, 44% of the hospital’s COVID patients were in their 40s or younger and most were previously healthy.

The CEOs of UF Health Jacksonville and Ascension reported similar shifts, as the median ages of their COVID patients skew younger than they’ve seen previously in the pandemic.

“It’s a younger demographic who are not getting vaccinated and unfortunately are contracting COVID and those cases are requiring hospitalization for treatment,” said Tom VanOsdol, president and CEO of Ascension Florida and Gulf Coast.

UF Health Jacksonville CEO Dr. Leon Haley said his hospitals’ COVID-19 cases have tripled in just weeks, going from 45 cases two weeks ago to 75 cases last week to 136 active patients as of Wednesday morning.

“Ninety percent of our hospitalized patients right now are unvaccinated and we’ve seen more deaths in the last two weeks than we’ve seen in many months,” Haley told The Morning Show on Wednesday. “ ... All of them are unvaccinated.”

During the news conference, Haley said 5% of the COVID-19 patients at UF Health Jacksonville started the vaccination process but didn’t finish it, meaning they only receive one dose if they got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

“And we are seeing a small percentage of people that are vaccinated, so it is possible for people to turn positive with having had the vaccine, but they are hospitalized at a much lower rate, and we’re seeing a significant decrease in their illness as well as their deaths,” Haley said.

Dr. Leon Haley, CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, joins us to discuss the recent Covid-19 surge in Northeast Florida.

Doug Baer, president and CEO of Brooks Rehabilitation, said the stress on the hospital staffs is significant, particularly considering it felt like the pandemic might have been nearing an end.

“It’s now very disheartening for all of us to experience these spikes in cases in hospitals, especially knowing that they could be prevented by more people getting vaccinated,” Baer said. “Please get vaccinated if you have not been. And stay safe.”

The hospital leaders confirmed they are making changes to their visitation policies and some are postponing elective procedures to deal with the added workload.

To help keep patients and staff safe, UF Health Jacksonville is allowing one visitor per patient at a time.

Because of the rise in cases and hospitalizations locally and across the state, other local hospitals are also changing their visitation policies.

  • Baptist Health says with 253 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across its five locations, and 59 of them in the Intensive Care Unit, it’s also restricting the number of people in its facilities to one visitor per patient, and they must wear a mask regardless of their vaccine status. Last week, Baptist announced some elective surgeries were on hold to manage hospital capacity.
  • Mayo Clinic patients are allowed one visitor and are asked that they be vaccinated. However, COVID-19 patients are not allowed to have visitors.
  • Memorial Hospital says it’s also allowing only one visitor at a time.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Mohammed Reza said the vaccine protects people against the delta variant, which is responsible for the recent surge -- with nearly 88% effectiveness after the second dose of Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Haley said, hospital staff are being stretched thin because there is vaccine hesitancy among staff members.

“We’re going one-on-one. We’re asking many of our vaccinated staff to talk to unvaccinated faculty and staff on a one-by-one basis to dispel all the myths. We just taped a town hall with many leaders and experts that we are going to show to our staff this week. We’re taking it day by day, moment by moment to change the way people think about this,” Haley said.

He said in the meantime, folks need to consider returning to wearing face masks and following social distancing protocols.

“We have a way through this, but we are going to have to rely on our medical experts and scientific leaders and help them continue to transmit the message about the safety of the vaccine,” Haley said. “If we don’t do this and the virus continues to mutate and comes up with the next strain, we could be in for even worse.”


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Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.