Hospital data becomes latest battleground in COVID-19 information war

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — With the COVID-19 case surge showing no signs of abating, conservatives who have spent much of the past two years downplaying the pandemic are turning their attacks away from testing and infection data toward a new measuring stick: hospitalization information.

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Increasingly, hospital statistics are becoming more important to scientists and health leaders who see COVID-19 inevitably transitioning to an endemic virus. That happens when there’s a constant presence of the virus and its variants circulating around the world, but never enough — or its infections not serious enough — to threaten hospital capacities.

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Some leaders believe omicron could be the first step toward that new phase, and are closely monitoring hospital capacities to see if the virus peaks before all beds are used.

As of Monday, in Florida, approximately 10% of all hospital beds in the state were taken by COVID-19 patients, according to data released by the Florida Hospital Association. The hard number of patients was 5,299, up more than three hundred from the day before, though pediatric cases were down.

The same report showed slightly less than a quarter of beds in the state were empty.

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“Given where we are in the number of hospitalizations, I am cautiously optimistic that we will not see the volume of hospitalizations as we experienced during [delta],” FHA President Mary Mayhew said, who added that her bigger concern was that “thousands upon thousands” of hospital staff members were unable to work after testing positive, straining systems.

However, a memo from Jackson Health System in the Miami area caught the attention of state leaders. Of the 439 COVID-19 patients who were in their facilities, half had been admitted for other reasons.

“I think that’s an important distinction to make,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said. “When you have a variant like Omicron, which is much more widespread, you are going to have people who get into a car accident and go into the emergency room [where] they’re swabbing everybody, and you’re going to have people that have incidental positives.”

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DeSantis went on to argue that Florida’s ICU utilization is the lowest in the country, and that most severe cases were caused by the delta variant.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, without supplying evidence, took things a step further.

“The majority of the 5,400 ‘Covid patients’ in Florida are in the hospital for non-Covid reasons,” he tweeted.

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Hospital leaders from multiple systems confirmed that one of the claims by DeSantis and Rubio was true: that any patient that enters the hospital and tests positive is counted as a COVID-19 patient, regardless of which condition they were primarily being treated for.

However, they pushed back on the attempts to downplay the precarious situations they were facing as omicron sets case records.

Hospital systems contacted Monday were not able to provide their statistics broken down by vaccination status. However, a spokesperson at one hospital confirmed that unvaccinated patients, who are considerably more likely to end up in the ICU, were almost always coming in for COVID-19. The “incidental positives,” as DeSantis described, were vaccinated patients whose symptoms, if any, mimicked a cold.

Furthermore, they said all patients are counted as COVID-19 patients because of the resources they consume. Whether the patient is asymptomatic or on a ventilator, more staff is needed to care for them, more PPE must be worn and isolation wards must be set up.

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As stated before, resources — particularly staff — are what hospital leaders need most right now.

“Health care is not alone in this, you are seeing and hearing that from many industries that they are struggling to have enough staff to support their functions,” Mayhew said.

She explained that she believed systems would be able to continue providing quality care for their communities as they did during the delta surge.

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“As [hospitals] deal with the combined pressure of demand and potentially challenges with staffing, there are a variety of decisions that they will ultimately make when necessary,” she said. “They have demonstrated time and again their ability to respond.”

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