‘People need to take this seriously’

Amanda Jones, of the Sumter County Health Department, takes nasal swabs during recent COVID-19 testing at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages.

Health officials are calling on citizens to be more diligent than ever in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Florida marked another grim virus milestone Thursday with 120 new deaths — the highest one-day jump amid a continued rise in new infections.

The state’s virus death toll has now surpassed 4,000 as 8,935 new daily cases were reported Thursday. More than 1% of the state’s population, or 232,718, now has been infected since the pandemic first hit here in early March.

In the last week alone, Lake County has added 674 new cases, Marion County has added 379 and Sumter County has added 162.

State officials also on Thursday reported the biggest 24-hour rise in hospitalizations, a total of 17,167 since the start of the pandemic.

Locally, the number of patients being treated for the virus at UF The Villages Hospital and UF Health Leesburg Hospital on Thursday was 51, up 60% from the same time last week, hospital officials confirmed.

The numbers are expected to worsen in the coming weeks as “they almost certainly do not include infections from the July 4 holiday weekend,” said Dr. Jeff Lowenkron, chief medical officer of The Villages Health.

“Those folks will lag in symptoms, and now test results are delayed eight to 10 days instead of three days,” he said. “So what we’re seeing today is what happened two weeks ago. And the numbers are escalating. We need people to take this seriously.”

UF Health The Villages Hospital was treating 15 virus patients on Thursday and UF Health Leesburg Hospital was treating 36. Of the 51 cases, 16 are in intensive care.

“We can’t avoid it and say it’s not here, because it is,” Lowenkron said. “We can’t say we’re all at low-risk, because we’re not. We need to minimize the need for hospitals to take care of people, that’s the message here.”

On Thursday, nearly half of Florida’s intensive-care units were at least 90% full, and more than 1 in 5 were maxed out, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

The UF Health has “significant ventilator and intensive care unit bed capacity to treat higher-acuity patients,” said Don Henderson, CEO of UF Health Central Florida, which operates both local hospitals. “Among our two hospitals in the Central Florida region, we have over 100 ventilators and are currently using approximately 10% of them.”

He said the bulk of our admissions are “very similar to more of a regular flu-like hospital admission for pneumonia,” with an anticipated length of stay of seven to 10 days on average.

“While this is not the case for all patients, particularly for older adults, many of these patients are being administered medication and are recovering much more quickly than patients did during the first wave,” he said.

All COVID-19-positive patients continue to be isolated in remote units separated from other patients and fitted with HEPA filters. Additionally, all patients and visitors are medically screened at hospital entrances upon arrival, visitation is restricted to one visitor per patient for the duration of a patient’s stay, and all visitors and staff are required to wear face masks at all times in the hospital.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier this week that the outbreak should not be defined by the number of new cases but by the types of new cases that are skewing younger. He said that the median age of those infected has shifted from age 65 at the start of March to a less vulnerable age 21.

“It’s much more lethal for people in their 80s and 90s than it is in your 20s and 30s,” he said. “If you’re 21 and you don’t have significant comorbidities, your fatality rate is pretty much zero.”

Lowenkron agreed the trend holds some promise, noting that the mortality rate falls from 25% for patients over age 85 to less than 2% for patients under 65.

“Very few people who get infected will need active treatment, and most do just fine,” he said, cautioning, “But not all. While younger individuals are typically more able to tolerate and survive the infection, older individuals are at higher risk for more serious outcomes. You don’t want to get it. And if you get it, you don’t want to give it to anybody else.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, also has urged ongoing diligence, especially among seniors and those with underlying health conditions.

“It’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death,” Fauci said during a Tuesday news conference. “The death rate is lower because (more infections are occurring) in people in general who are young or healthier. But that doesn’t mean that you could not get seriously ill. There are so many other things that are very dangerous about this virus, don’t get yourself into a false complacency.”

DeSantis acknowledged this week that the rising numbers are not a result of increased testing, but a sign that the virus is indeed spreading at a quicker pace.

The positive test rate on Tuesday reached 20.8% statewide, the highest yet for a single day.

In a news conference on Thursday, DeSantis said he has been in contact with the White House regarding securing additional supplies of the antiviral drug remdesivir.

Lowenkron stressed that while that and other medications have had success in helping the most seriously ill, there is still no vaccine or treatment for milder symptoms that can still take a severe toll.

“The numbers show there’s a higher likelihood of coming in contact with the virus, so you need to reduce your risk,” he said. “Continue social distancing, limit your exposure with crowds — especially indoors — wear your mask and wash your hands. Protect yourself and protect others. That’s how we’ll stop the spread.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.