‘The virus has a new target’: Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations quadruple in a month

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Florida have increased from just 2,000 at the end of June to almost 9,000 as of July 28, a spike that is putting stress on hospitals and counties across the state.

“The virus has a new target: the unvaccinated and younger people,” wrote Mary C. Mayhew, president and CEO of Florida Hospital Association, in a release on Wednesday. “Previously healthy people from their teens to their 40s are now finding themselves in the hospital and on a ventilator. Regardless of your age, get vaccinated, if eligible! What you heard last year and last spring about this virus mostly targeting seniors and those with pre-existing conditions is not true today.”

READ: ‘We haven’t seen the end of it’: Current COVID-19 surge likely to continue, doctors say

The outbreak, driven by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, is hitting counties where vaccination rates are the lowest.

“We’re definitely seeing a pickup in hospitalizations statewide,” said Justin Senior, the CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. “It started about two or three weeks ago and has really been increasing pretty steadily and pretty quickly since then and I can tell you that there seems to be a relation between vaccination rates and hospitalization rates.”

READ: Here’s where you can get the COVID-19 vaccine in Orlando in August

Senior points to Duval County where hospitalizations are above what the county reported in January and last July as the county’s vaccination rate (50%) is the lowest among Florida’s largest counties.

“The delta variant is significantly more contagious than the prior variant so we are seeing a lot of people getting it, but the vaccines clearly work against it,” Senior said.

READ: Here’s where & when face masks are required, recommended in Central Florida

As the virus spreads, county leaders across the state are redoubling efforts to push vaccinations.

“We are at a crisis point and need your help to keep each other, our offices and our residents safe,” wrote Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald in an internal memo to county staff on Wednesday.

The memo from the Volusia County manager comes at the same time as Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings issued a state of emergency and mandated vaccinations for all nonunion employees.

READ: CDC mask recommendations: Is your county a ‘high transmissibility’ area?

“The delta variant is just extremely contagious and much more contagious than the previous variants that we’ve seen,” said Chelsea Boyd, an epidemiology and harm reduction expert with the R-Street Institute. “We are trying to slow down the spread in places of lower vaccination and protect people who cannot be vaccinated or have compromised immune systems.”

Boyd said the challenge in combating this wave is explaining to people the need to resume safety precautions, including masking, even if they are fully vaccinated.

READ: Orange County mayor declares local state of emergency, urges all to wear masks indoors

She notes that while a fully vaccinated person may not show symptoms of the virus, they can still spread the virus. But she added that reintroducing masks may be difficult.

“I think people are fatigued from all of the health information that comes their way and their fatigued from the pandemic,” Boyd said. “Now we have to try and regroup now that there is another wave coming our way.”