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Spike In Coronavirus Cases Overwhelms Intensive Care Units At Florida Hospitals

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I'm Ailsa Chang in Los Angeles. In late April, Florida was seeing fewer than a thousand daily cases of COVID-19. And as the state prepared to enter its first phase of reopening, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis met with President Trump at the White House to talk about the state's progress at containing the virus.

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RON DESANTIS: Everyone in the media was saying Florida was going to be like New York or Italy, and that has not happened.

CHANG: Well, yesterday, Florida reported a staggering 15,000 positive coronavirus cases. That's thousands more than the daily peaks seen even in Italy or New York at the height of their outbreaks. Hospitals in Florida are now struggling both with shortages of ICU beds and shortages of the people needed to staff those beds. Jackson Memorial Hospital is the largest in South Florida, where the state's epidemic is now the most severe. Dr. David J. De La Zerda is the director of medical ICU there.

Welcome.

DAVID J DE LA ZERDA: Thank you very much for having me on the show.

CHANG: So tell me - how is your hospital currently handling this surge? I mean, were you at all prepared for these numbers?

DE LA ZERDA: I mean, we didn't expect this to be so rapidly increasing number of cases. So yeah, we are preparing in the sense, like, we are trying to change some of our ICUs that were not being used as COVID; now we will be transporting to COVID units. So it's not like we had 100 beds ready to be used for COVID patients; it's we have to move these patients that were non-COVID patients to a different facility so we can accommodate more COVID patients.

CHANG: So as you are moving patients around to different ICU units to free up beds, I mean, are you confident at this point that you will have enough beds and enough trained staff for those beds to handle this new influx of patients?

DE LA ZERDA: I am really worried. If we continue to see the influx we've seen in the last few days, we are going to reach our capacity by the end of the week.

CHANG: Wow. So what kind of help would you like to see from either the state government or the federal government at this point to help you with that capacity?

DE LA ZERDA: The things that we're seeing right now is one issue is the staff, especially nurses, are tired, and they are just burnt out. So we are getting 100 nurses, hopefully, in the next week. We already got 30 of those 100 nurses. We are going to need more nurses for sure. For the physicians, what we're trying to do is following similar models that they did in New York, meaning that we're getting more help from our colleagues, like dermatologists, urologists, and other colleagues are actually coming to the hospital and trying to help out. And then at the end, you know, it's the Convention Center in Miami Beach is now - there are hospital beds. So I think we'll be transferring patients soon.

CHANG: And these patients that you're seeing in the ICUs today, are you noticing any differences from the COVID patients you were seeing just two months ago?

DE LA ZERDA: Yes. They're younger patients - age last time was probably around 65. Now it's - our average age is between 25 to 35, 45 years old.

CHANG: Oh, my.

DE LA ZERDA: But that's our big change - much younger patients.

CHANG: Yeah.

DE LA ZERDA: Pretty much healthy, not really major past medical history. And also, they get sicker more than the previous time.

CHANG: And when you say sicker, what does that look like. Can you describe specifically what sicker, when it comes to the coronavirus, seems like?

DE LA ZERDA: Yeah, so what I mean sicker is the use of the amount of oxygen this person required to keep a saturation, meaning the amount of oxygen in the blood is much higher than the previous patients. Second is the blood pressure has been low, so we have to use a lot of medications to actually bring their blood pressure to a normal level. So it's, one, the use of medications to keep the blood pressure high and, second, the amount of oxygen these patients are requiring, which is more than last time.

CHANG: I mean, this is troubling. These are otherwise healthy individuals - no preexisting conditions for the most part, as far as you can tell - who are actually getting sicker.

DE LA ZERDA: That is exactly my major concern - young patients with no past medical history getting sicker.

CHANG: I mean, you have been on the front lines for months now battling the coronavirus. Can you talk about how the last several months have been for you personally?

DE LA ZERDA: So we are working many hours, I think, like, at least three times more than we worked in the past. So it's a big toll to our families. I don't get to see my kids that often. The burnout that we see in our ICUs is really high, so we're trying our best as a team to manage this, but it's really high. Also, we would like to see more community support, you know, in the sense, like, when you go out, people be wearing masks and so forth. And sometimes, you don't see this here in Miami, unfortunately. So it's a source of the frustration of seeing the community not doing their part.

CHANG: Dr. David J. De La Zerda is the director of medical ICU at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Thank you very much for joining us. And good luck to you.

DE LA ZERDA: Thank you very much for the invite. It was really a pleasure to join you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.