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"We Are Being Pushed To The Limit"- Central Florida Hospitals Under Pressure As COVID-19 Surge Continues

Dr. Sam Atallah. Photo: Matthew Peddie / WMFE
Dr. Sam Atallah. Photo: Matthew Peddie / WMFE

With coronavirus cases in Florida continuing to surge, medical staff say hospitals are being pushed to the limit. The state reported more than 151,415 new cases in the last seven days, while 15,630 people were in hospital with COVID-19 as of Sunday, according to the Florida Hospital Association.

The Florida Department of Health, says 12,420,704 Floridians have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 10,319,844 are fully vaccinated.  

WMFE’s Matthew Peddie spoke with Dr. Sam Atallah. He's a surgeon with AdventHealth in Orlando.  He says the region needs a field hospital for COVID patients. 

Dr. Atallah: The conditions do vary from hospital to hospital, and some are harder hit than others. The one that I just came from, to give you an idea of the severity, is divided into two general wards: a medicine ward designed and designated to take care of all medical ailments from heart disease to lung disease, etc., then a surgical ward. The medical ward is at 100% capacity. And every patient on that ward is COVID positive, and 99% of them are unvaccinated. The ICU from the same hospital is at capacity. And it's the same story there as well. 100% of the occupancy is COVID positive patients, 99% of which are unvaccinated. So our hospital systems, our health care systems in Central Florida, are being pushed to the limits, we are at capacity, we are worried, we're concerned because we're not able to deliver the normal quality of health care that we can to folks in Central Florida.

Matthew Peddie: How sick are the patients who are being admitted, you know, compared to the peak of the pandemic last year?

Dr. Atallah: So first of all, we're seeing a different demographic, right? Because our elderly, our 65 and older especially, are at a much higher vaccination rate. And so we're not seeing that. We're seeing the younger folks who basically took their chances and said, Well, I don't know, maybe the vaccine is not right for me. Or maybe it's just on my to do list. And I haven't gotten around to doing it. Because heretofore it was perceived that COVID-19 was a problem of the elderly. Those are the people who are, you know, very sick and dying. Now we're seeing a younger demographic, but Matt, I'll tell you what, they are sick. And it is not true that if you're younger, you are going to get COVID and not have any sequelae. They would not be filling our hospitals right now if they weren't ill because otherwise it could just be managed as an outpatient. And to backtrack and just tell you on the medical ward, where I said it's 100% occupancy with COVID patients, a good fraction of those have been upgraded to ICU status, but on the medical Ward, so yes, they're ill and they're not just bouncing right back from COVID-19. The downstream, trickle-down effect is that is that our operating rooms are only running on vapors right now. In other words, we are not doing any elective surgeries in the greater Orlando area. So this requires resource management and reallocation. Sometimes patients have to be transferred to less overwhelmed campuses, etc. But I will tell you that it has the administration of all major hospital systems very concerned right now, because we are not able to currently deliver the quality of health care to Central Florida, folks, like we did just a few weeks ago before the surge.

MP: How are you doing then? And how are staff coping in general?

Dr. Atallah: I think we're seeing a level of fatigue and frustration. Part of it, Matt, is that a year ago when, let's say the first wave of the pandemic was around pre-vaccine era, we were under the mercy of the virus, right? We did everything that we could: we socially distanced, we wore masks, we did everything we could and still the pandemic, COVID-19, still had the upper hand on us. Now it's a different story, right? We have a vaccine, we have several vaccines, and they're very effective. So we have sort of, if you will, quote unquote, the antidote to the virus, to even the pandemic and yet we are not able to realize that because we still have a large fraction of citizens, of folks out there who meet the qualifications and the criteria for vaccination, yet have not received that. And I think that is ultimately the ticket to the end of the pandemic: higher vaccination rates.

MP: The Florida Department of Health also this week tweeted out a COVID advisory that included everything except for masking and that's something recommended by the CDC. Do you think people are going to lose faith in institutions if they see political interference in health questions?

Dr. Atallah: I think so. I think the real issue with the management of the pandemic, in my mind, without politicizing this, is that we're listening to party leaders for guidance, and what to do or not do related to COVID-19 and the pandemic. And to some degree party leaders have some authority and, and I understand where that comes from. But ultimately, we should listen to the CDC, we should listen to our health care leaders, and our doctors with regards to how to manage the pandemic. And listen, this is obviously all new to us. And I understand there's frustration from the public, right? You said wear masks and you said don't wear masks... we are still figuring it out. Who else has lived through a pandemic like this, honestly? And so we may not always get it right. And there may have been times when we should have been wearing masks that we didn't. We didn't know; we're learning along the way. And we're using science, and we're using data to make the most informed decisions to protect our public.

MP: Just back to your original ask on social media, you know, 'we need a field hospital'. If there were to be a field hospital built in the Central Florida area, who would staff it, because it does sound like  staffing is coming to be a bit of a problem.

Dr. Atallah: I think that that's got to come with its own staffing. We need help. We need help from the state or the federal government. I think that's going to be, or that should be part of the solution- if this surge that we're observing does not rapidly turn a corner for the better.