Covid-19 wards are emptying out in South Florida. Doctors say it's proof vaccines work

 AP PhotoFILE - In this April 5, 2021, file photo, Leanne Montenegro, 21, covers her eyes as she doesn't like the sight of needles, while she receives the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a FEMA vaccination center at Miami Dade College in Miami. Nearly half of new coronavirus infections nationwide are in just five states, including Florida — a situation that puts pressure on the federal government to consider changing how it distributes vaccines by sending more doses to hot spots. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

 

MIAMI — At the height of Florida’s summer Covid-19 surge, there were more than 2,000 people hospitalized with the novel illness in the epicenter of Miami-Dade County. Now, with 1.2 million people in the county fully vaccinated, that number has dropped to below 300 for the first time since mid-October.

The plummet comes as hospital Covid-19 units are emptying out across the state, where fewer than 1,800 people are being treated for the disease statewide, compared to the late July height of about 9,500.

In South Florida, hospital leaders are attributing the patient plunge to the efficacy of the three federally authorized vaccines. About 60 percent of Floridians 25 and older have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. That percentage jumps to 66 percent for the 35-and-older bracket and 70 percent for those 45 and older.

The vaccination rates are even higher in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, two counties hit especially hard during the pandemic.

Though most hospitals in the region say they aren’t tracking how many people end up in a Covid ward despite being fully vaccinated, they’ve offered anecdotal observations that it’s an extremely rare occurrence.

Dr. Fred Keroff, the district medical director for emergency services at Memorial Hospital System, said South Broward’s public hospital network isn’t tracking that statistic because it wouldn’t affect how they treat patients. But based on what he was hearing from physicians and providers in the emergency department, Keroff said he was confident the vaccines are working.

“Obviously, being vaccinated has made a difference,” Keroff said.

Similarly, Miami-Dade’s public hospital network, Jackson Health System, said it was not tracking how many fully vaccinated Covid patients have been admitted. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking the statistic nationally, measuring “breakthrough cases,” which it defines as hospitalization or death from Covid-19 despite being fully vaccinated.

As of June 4, approximately 137 million people had been fully vaccinated in the U.S., or 49 percent of the U.S. population 12 and over, and fewer than 3,000 of them were hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to the CDC.

About 535 deaths of fully vaccinated people who tested positive COVID have been recorded, though 88, or 16% of them, were reported as “asymptomatic or not related to COVID,” according to the CDC.

One hospital that is tracking the data publicly is the Boca Raton facility of Baptist Health South Florida, the region’s largest nonprofit hospital system. At Boca Raton Regional Hospital, 88 patients were admitted with COVID over the course of a month, from late April to late May. But only four of them were fully vaccinated, according to Dr. Samer Fahmy, chief medical officer at the hospital.

Of those four, two had mild, cold-like symptoms, one had no symptoms at all, and one was immuno-compromised, with “extensive medical problems,” including underlying lung disease and multiple surgeries, Fahmy said.

“Despite that, after a few days in the hospital, they were discharged,” Fahmy said. “We’ve had zero deaths [from COVID for fully vaccinated people] since we started collecting the data.”

In Miami-Dade, hospitals are shifting away from onerous reporting requirements. Earlier this week, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava lifted the emergency order requiring hospitals to report COVID daily patients that had been in place since April 2020, well before the state released those data.

Levine Cava’s spokeswoman said the decision was made in consultation with Dr. Peter Paige, the county’s chief medical officer and an administrator at Jackson Health System, “based on our great progress in fighting the spread of COVID-19, as shown in our data.”

“ ... Our hospital teams have been going over and above since the very start of this pandemic in caring for thousands of COVID patients, and keeping our community updated on critical COVID data during the height of the pandemic,” said Rachel Johnson, the mayor’s spokeswoman. “The hospitals do continue to report data to the state, and based on our overall COVID progress, the double reporting to the county is no longer necessary.”

All of the key metrics used to gauge the severity of the pandemic have been dropping consistently since January, according to an analysis by Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida who tracks COVID data.

Cases have dropped by about 87% since mid-January, and the average number of patients currently hospitalized has dropped by 74%, including a decrease of more than 1,200 people in the last month alone, Salemi said.

Breaking down COVID admissions by age, however, offers the best look at how the vaccines are affecting the numbers, Salemi said.

“The most heavily vaccinated subgroup in our population are seniors and we can see an 80% decrease in new admissions since January 15,” Salemi said. “People 18-59 are at much lower risk of being hospitalized than seniors, but their decrease over time is less pronounced.”

At Baptist’s Boca Raton hospital, Fahmy, the chief medical officer, said the hospital was down to one Covid patient in the intensive care unit and the numbers have been declining steadily since January.

The demographics of the patients are also different, according to Fahmy. He said the 65-and-older age group used to account for about 65 percent of Covid admissions, but now that’s closer to 30 percent.

“It seems to me that that’s the group that realized their risk and have the highest rates of vaccination,” Fahmy said. “So we’ve seen a sharp decline in the older Covid patients being admitted, which is a testament to the efficacy of the vaccines.”

— Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.)

© 2021 Miami Herald.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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