Patients wait in ambulances outside Florida hospitals as COVID-19 infections spread

AdventHealth Central Florida had record number of patients last week

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) (Rebecca Blackwell, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – COVID-19 cases have filled so many Florida hospital beds that ambulance services and fire departments are straining to respond to emergencies.

In St. Petersburg, some patients wait inside ambulances for up to an hour before hospitals can admit them — a process that usually takes about 15 minutes, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said.

While ambulances sit outside emergency rooms, they are essentially off the grid.

“They’re not available to take another call, which forces the fire department on scene at an accident or something to take that transport. That’s caused quite a backlog for the system.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the state has surpassed 20,000 for its 7-day average of new cases, a day after the federal agency misreported numbers given by the Florida Department of Health by combining data from the last three days into two.

Hospitalizations rose by more than 1,100 on Tuesday to 14,787 patients with COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 47% of ICU beds were taken by about 3,000 coronavirus patients. That number has nearly tripled in the last three weeks.

At no other time during the pandemic have intensive care units seen a percentage of COVID patients as high as in the last two days. Last year around mid-July, the percentage edged to 45% with about 1,400 patients. Officials ramped up beds at hospitals and at their peak reported about 2,500 ICU patients at a time. At the height of last year’s summer surge, Florida had about 10,170 COVID-19 hospitalizations overall.

Burton stressed that the most serious non-COVID cases, such as heart attacks and strokes, still get prompt attention in emergency rooms. And he says the county is working with fire rescue officials to find more ambulances and have extra staff on hand. But “that really taxes on already overstressed fire and rescue staff,” he warned.

Nearly 70% of Florida hospitals are expecting critical staffing shortage in the next seven days, according to the Florida Hospital Association. The COVID-19 influx is also hitting as Florida hospitals are seeing “unusually high numbers of very ill non-COVID patients,” said the association's president Mary Mayhew.

“Our front line health care heroes are finding themselves stretched thin and physical and mental exhaustion is taking its toll,” she said, noting that many of those hospitalized are in their 20s and 30s.

Although numbers are spiking, it’s unlikely hospitals in the state will run out of brick and mortar spaces for patients beds, said Justin Senior, head of Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents some of the largest hospital systems in the state. He said that’s because many of Florida’s hospitals can convert everything from conference rooms to ambulatory centers into COVID units.

Kevin Cho Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner for two South Florida hospitals, said teams in the emergency rooms and ICUs are exhausted. He is seeing cases where family members who were unvaccinated get sick together and end up being admitted to the hospital.

Tipton said he recently treated a young father who was put on life support. The man's wife also was fighting an infection in the hospital, and the woman's father was later admitted and put on ventilator. The young father died.

“Every person we lose is painful, but having to walk down the hallways to tell his wife who was also admitted and worrying about their children at home was even more difficult," Tipton said. “Her father, who was taking care of her kids at home, ended up being admitted as well.”

Officials have said the surge brought on by the delta variant of COVID-19 is mostly among the unvaccinated. And it comes as children across Florida are heading back to school. Classroom instruction begins this week in the heavily populated regions around Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Most students in South Florida head back to school next week.

In Leon County, Superintendent Rocky Hanna, working with district leaders and parents, moved to require masks for pre-K through 12 and remove the medical exemption, opting for parental exemption for the first day of school, WTXL-TV reports. The new rule passed unanimously.

Children will be given a parental opt-out form on the first day of school and have until next week to turn it in. The form will also be emailed to parents immediately.

The Broward County school board held a meeting on Tuesday and approved a mask mandate for children in schools, going against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration, which has attempted to block schools from imposing such mandates.

The state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter on Monday to two school districts — in Leon and Alachua counties — saying their adopted policy appeared not to comply with the new rules. He demanded a response and said he may recommend the state's Board of Education withhold the salaries of the superintendent and school board members.

DeSantis' spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said Broward County's mask policy appears to be similar to the two other counties, adding “it's safe to assume Broward has opened itself up to a similar response.”