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The South Florida Roundup

South Florida Hospitals Respond To Surge In COVID-19 Cases, And What We Know One Month After The Surfside Collapse

Image: VA VAntage Point blog
Image: VA VAntage Point blog

Doctors and hospital leaders give an update on the rapid increase in COVID-positive patients at Memorial Healthcare System and Jackson Health. And a roundtable of regional reporters, on the ground over the last four weeks, help us understand where reporting on Surfside goes from here, one month after the tragic condo collapse.

In recent weeks, hospitals across the state have seen an alarming rise in the number of people being admitted who are positive for COVID-19.

COVID-positive patients coming to South Florida hospitals are also up. Jackson Health and Memorial Healthcare System have seen increases well over 100%.

"The concern is that rapid, and the exponential, growth that we're experiencing. In one day we increased by 24 patients and everyone else is seeing numbers they have not seen since last summer," said Aurelio Fernandez, president and CEO of Memorial Healthcare System.

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The vast majority of those patients ending up in hospitals with the virus are unvaccinated. However, medical workers are still seeing instances of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people.

As the delta variant spreads — Florida is one of three states that contributed to 40% of all new cases in the U.S. this week, according to the White House.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Our journalists are continuing to work hard to keep you informed across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

On the South Florida Roundup WLRN spoke with Fernandez and Dr. Hany Atallah, chief medical officer at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Together, the experts discussed what's holding unvaccinated people back from getting a shot and what a surge looks like inside South Florida hospitals.

Also on the program, we spoke with a panel of local reporters about a significant shift in Surfside one month after the Champlain Towers South building collapsed. The tragedy took the lives of nearly 100 people and displaced many more.

Here is a quick breakdown of the show.

COVID-19 Cases In South Florida Hospitals Rise With A Vengeance

At a press conference earlier this week, Jackson Health System’s president, Carlos Migoya, said about 58% of Jackson’s staff are vaccinated. He says he wants more employees to get a shot.

"That’s another plea to make sure that we get all the public safety people out in the community to get vaccinated as well. It’s extremely important we get all the young strong people to get vaccinated, equally as important as the older people with co-morbidities,” Migoya said.

Friday, Atallah agreed that frontline healthcare workers have a variety of reasons for being hesitant about getting their shots, including that some want to wait for full FDA approval.

"Ultimately, the vaccine is safer to get than it is to get COVID," said Atallah. "The hesitancy is a bit of all over the map. But we're just really trying to get back to people and say, 'Listen, it's safe, it's effective. We can show you the evidence, what questions [do] you have? How can we help alleviate some of your concerns around the vaccine?'"

The rate of employee vaccination at Memorial is slightly lower than that of Jackson.

"Between 56% and 57% of the total workforce that has been vaccinated," said Fernandez. "But I can tell you that what we have experienced this week, with the upside of number of positive admissions, we have seen more and more employees getting vaccinated because now they're taking it seriously."

Another challenge Fernandez faces, as more and more COVID patients come to Memorial Healthcare System, is a shortage of staff.

"The biggest challenge is staffing, especially nursing," said Fernandez. "We have seen a significant recruitment effort by what we call traveling nurses in our market that have gone elsewhere to work — whether it be California, Texas, [elsewhere] in the United States, except for South Florida. And that is concerning."

For people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection wondering if they should get the shot, Atallah explained the benefits of the better quality of immunity that comes from a vaccine.

"When you had the infection you'll have some immunity for a while but that immunity will wane," said Atallah. "And we've certainly seen people who have had COVID more than once. But the recommendation, and I think it makes sense, is still to go get the vaccine."

"I'm vaccinated. And when I when I get in the elevator, in the building I'm staying in, I put my mask on. Do I enjoy it? No, I don't necessarily enjoy it," Atallah said.

"But is it the right thing to do? It is, and I think we all just have to keep trying to do our part as much as we can do to get through this."

The Surfside Condo Collapse A Month Later: What Comes Next

The site where Champlain Towers South once stood is almost completely cleared, but the community is still reeling from the tragedy about one month later. First responders are now heading home this week after grueling, emotional work.

A panel of local reports joined the program including:

  • Veronica Zaragovia, WLRN's health care reporter
  • Wendy Rhodes, senior politics and economy reporter for the Palm Beach Post, who covered Surfside on an assignment for USA Today
  • Joey Flechas, reporter for The Miami Herald

They each reflected on their coverage over the last month and discussed what lies ahead in the investigation into how the building collapsed, and what's needed for the town to start healing.

"My primary responsibility at the Herald is covering Miami City Hall and the intersection between government policy, both at the local municipal level and at the state level, and the processes that preceded this collapse," said Flechas. "The standards, the inspection processes, the recertification process, all of that is under scrutiny and it's under scrutiny by a number of groups. And it's certainly a major part of our reporting process going forward."

Zaragovia noted that the sale of the property where the building fell, and what the future of a memorial to the victims looks like, is being handled in the courts.

"It's a very complicated process. We don't know exactly how soon that would be determined and who is going to purchase the land," she said. "But I do want to say that Leo Soto, who started the temporary memorial at the tennis court fence on Harding Avenue has given his all to giving people an opportunity to grieve, grieve together there. And he wants to volunteer and help shape a permanent memorial, if he can."

"It was just dust and darkness and the beach and the sky."
Joey Flechas, Miami Herald, describing what survivors of the condo collapse saw when they escaped their building, partially gone.

Rhodes works in Palm Beach County, but had been reporting in Surfside without leaving since the day after the collapse. She went home this week on Thursday, and reported that the foundation to the collapsed building possibly hold answers as to why it fell.

"The structural engineer that was hired to investigate the reason of the collapse of the South Tower — he was hired by the town of Surfside — has told me that that he's open to a lot of things that might have contributed to this and that it's probably not just one thing, it's probably a combination of things," said Rhodes. "But he did tell me that one of the things he really wants to look at is the foundation of this building."

Looking back, Flechas said some of the most poignant moments of his reporting that will stay with him include the vivid tales of survivors getting out of the building.

"When they stepped down to the hallways that showed them that a portion of their building was gone. And it was just dust and darkness and the beach and the sky," he said. "I remember so many experts and people, just regular people that I talked to, just really looking at each other and saying, like, 'How can a building just fall?' And that's still a question that remains to be answered."

Caitie Switalski Muñoz covers news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News. Her award-winning coverage focuses on: affordable housing, city and county governments, homelessness issues, transportation and slice of life here in South Florida.