Florida's hospitals show signs that coronavirus may be waning. For now, at least

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Broward Health Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joshua Lenchus is optimistic that the recent surge of hospitalizations for coronavirus is waning. - Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Hospitalization rates, the most timely indicator for how severe the COVID pandemic is in Florida, are showing signs that the state finally may have the virus more under control.

While people still are arriving at Florida hospitals struggling for breath, they are coming in fewer numbers than just three weeks ago, when new hospitalizations for the coronavirus hit a high in the state.

“Hospitalizations are the real measure, and we are seeing declining admissions and increasing discharges,” said Dr. Zoran Bursac, chair of the Department of Biostatistics at Florida International University.

Hospitalizations and emergency department visits are reported in real-time. New positive cases and deaths are lagging indicators — both take time to process and report.

“I think hospitalizations will continue to go down, but we still have a high number of cases,” Bursac said. “We need to be cautious. We are not out of the woods yet.”

Bursac said the university’s models predict more decline in new hospitalizations for at least the next three weeks, but it may take a while for sick patients to leave intensive care units.

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., Broward County hospitals had 920 patients with the virus, Palm Beach had 442 and Miami-Dade had 1,439, according to Florida’s Emergency Surveillance System.

Just two weeks ago on Aug 1., South Florida hospitals had nearly 20% more patients hospitalized for the virus: Miami-Dade County had 1,739 patients; Broward had 1,165; Palm Beach County had 496 patients.

For most of July, when Dr. Jerome Wilkerson kissed his two young daughters goodbye in the morning, he left for a long day of treating patients with COVID-19 who were flooding into the emergency department at Westside Regional Hospital in Plantation.

Now, two weeks into August, Wilkerson, an emergency medicine specialist, sees some relief — and hopes it will last.

“There has been a decrease in ER visits and people in the ICU, but we are still asking people to take the virus seriously,” Wilkerson said.

During July, emergency room doctors like Wilkerson treated people of all ages coming in for medical help with a wide range of symptoms, from difficulty breathing to persistent fever. Staff now test patients for the virus before admitting them. Even when positive, some are sent home and asked to monitor their oxygen levels rather than be hospitalized.

In recent weeks, Palm Beach and Dade counties implemented a mask mandate and Broward County issued new rules including a mandate to wear masks at gyms, limitations on house gatherings and a temporary curfew.

South Florida hospital executives say the new rules may have eased the burden on their exhausted staff.

Along with fewer hospitalizations, visits to hospitals’ emergency department for COVID-like symptoms have been declining in Florida. Visits plunged since the first week of July — from 16,000 visits on July 5 to 5,000 on Aug. 2. In Broward County emergency department visits dropped from 1,414 on July 5 to 521 on Aug. 2.

In east Fort Lauderdale, Dr. Joshua Lenchus, chief medical officer at Broward Health Medical Center, says he is encouraged by what he sees in the hospital: fewer beds are now filled with COVID-19 patients than in July, patients are being discharged more often, and the staff is “holding the line.”

“We are pleased that new COVID-19 positive numbers appear to be holding steady, due in large part to our community taking appropriate safety measures that are helping mitigate the spread of the virus,” Lenchus said.

South Florida hit its greatest number of hospitalizations during the pandemic the week of July 20, when at least a dozen ICUs in all three counties reached capacity. Records from the Florida Office of Emergency Management show 51 hospitals in Florida requested additional help of 2,412 nurses. Some turned to their own staffing agencies for help with recruiting nurses.

When coronavirus patients flooded into Memorial Healthcare System last month, the public health system recruited 300 travel nurses to help out with the high volume.

Although the nurses will stay through October, the demands on staff have eased. Stanley Marks, chief executive officer of Memorial Healthcare System, said the number of COVID cases arriving in the emergency department and admitted to his five hospitals is going down. With the decline, Memorial resumed elective, short stay and ambulatory procedures again.

“Although there are many reassuring signs both in the community and in our own healthcare system, this disease is still prevalent,” Marks said. “We are still managing a high number of very sick patients in our intensive care units, and unfortunately there are a significant number of patients who have passed away given this serious and deadly disease. Everyone needs to continue following safety precautions and continue staying safe.”

Hospitals across the state report the same trend — a decline in COVID-19 patients from July. Across the state, 6,753 people were hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 as of about 1 p.m. Tuesday. The total hospitalized for the disease two weeks ago was nearly 9,000.

Wilkerson at Westside Regional Hospital in Plantation said he still treats patients every day who are in respiratory distress, some who even need to go on ventilators. Fortunately, he has more treatment options available than in March and April and more patients of all ages are going home.

He warns this is not the time to ease up on social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. “Yes, there has been a decrease but we are not out of danger yet. Everyone still needs to be cautious.”

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)