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Unvaccinated patients flood Florida hospitals

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Doctors in the United States (US) are expressing their frustration as they battle to keep COVID-19 patients alive in Florida hospitals who chose not to be vaccinated or take the necessary precautions.

“The biggest tragedy we see is the preventable loss of life,” says ex-South African, Dr Ari Sareli, who is chief of critical-care medicine and oversees all of Memorial Healthcare System’s intensive-care units (ICUs).

Sareli, a King David High School Linksfield alumnus who grew up in Glenhazel, lives in Boca Raton. He told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s when people pay the ultimate price, and as healthcare workers, we understand the tragedy is that loss of life could have been prevented with vaccination.”

Certain states like Florida are buckling under a crippling summer surge in COVID-19 cases led by the contagious Delta variant.

In Florida, where thousands of Jewish ex-South Africans have settled, hospitals are groaning with severely ill patients – the majority of whom are unvaccinated. Mask wearing isn’t mandated, and restaurants, beaches, bars, and businesses remain open.

Florida is one of the worst hit US states in terms of new COVID-19 cases and death attributed to the disease. A few days ago, the state which comprises a little more than 6% of the US population, accounted for about one in five of the country’s new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has urged people to vaccinate, but hasn’t instituted a mask mandate and intends to keep the tourist state open in spite of the Delta spike. He is opposed to imposing lockdowns and new restrictions. Some are saying these factors have contributed to the surge in the sunshine state, and it’s not expected to reach a peak anytime soon.

Sareli said healthcare workers “get to see the suffering, we get to see the broken lives, and we see patients dying in what could have been a preventable tragedy”.

“It’s absolutely true that, with vaccination, a very small minority of people may get critically ill and may even die, but that proportion is so small and the overwhelming majority of people could be saved. They could be at a point in their lives where they aren’t devastated, where the lives of their families aren’t shattered,” he said.

Governor DeSantis has reportedly tried to block local communities and schools from mandating the use of face masks, as well as opposing attempts by private businesses to require vaccination as a condition of providing services, drawing criticism from many local leaders.

As Florida continues to set records for new cases and hospitalisations, the mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, called DeSantis the “Pied Piper of COVID-19, leading everybody off a cliff”.

While many residents have been fully vaccinated, there are many who refuse to get the life-saving jab.

Hospital beds in the state are filling up rapidly with people who have serious cases of COVID-19. Some hospitals have reportedly reached capacity in their ICUs.

This week, Palm Beach County is to declare a state of emergency to deal with the pandemic. With more than 1 000 new COVID-19 cases per day, the community spread is high and the numbers are expected to rise, experts said.

The vaccination rate among the elderly is quite high, but lower among younger people, and healthcare workers are witnessing more hospitalisations in that population.

Sareli said that his hospital group had 133 ICU beds. At the time of going to print, there were 145 ICU patients, with the overwhelming majority of them ill with COVID-19, mostly on ventilators.

“The ICUs are operating above capacity. Cafeterias and conference rooms have been converted to provide additional patient spaces,” he said.

“There are problems with oxygen delivery, and the entire healthcare system in the state is under huge pressure.”

Justine Goldberg, originally from Johannesburg who lives in Miami, is a medical physician at Memorial Healthcare System, in Hollywood, Florida. She posted on Facebook on 15 August, “This war isn’t even halfway over.

“We are already running out of steam, and can’t afford to give up the fight now. Today is my 12th day in a row working. For most healthcare workers, exhaustion is an understatement. The hardest part is to keep going, saving lives when people aren’t vaccinated and are presenting more critically ill than ever. The majority of patients affected right now are unvaccinated!”

She explained how after trying everything possible to help a 50-year-old unvaccinated female patient, she was forced to intubate her.

“Eventually I had to call it and intubate her. This doesn’t seem so bad while you’re reading this, but when you’re seeing someone fight for their life to take that breath and survive, it’s heartbreaking.”

An ex-South African mom in Boca Raton who preferred to remain anonymous, told the SA Jewish Report that though she and her family had taken every precaution to remain healthy, many did what they liked.

“We wear masks anywhere in public, but not everyone thinks like this. People are selfish, stupid, and ignorant,” she said.

“COVID-19 has gone crazy in Florida. While some of us are extra cautious, there are many refusing to wear masks or get the vaccination, and they are the ones getting gravely ill. It makes no sense to defy the evidence and the science – vaccination and masks work.”

She’s disappointed because like many of her friends, she wants life to return to a new normal as soon as possible. “My child hasn’t been to school for more than a year and a half. Our family hasn’t eaten at a restaurant since this pandemic started. Thankfully, when my son goes back to school later this month, masks will have been mandated at his private Jewish school, but other schools are different.

“Every conversation is about COVID-19. Everyone has their own thoughts and ideas. While our hospitals are full, people are going away on holiday, eating in restaurants, and travelling. The schools should do full COVID-19 testing on every staff member and kid before they go back to school. Kids have all been away on various summer camps, and bring the virus home with them. It’s going to get interesting.”

Annette Polovin, who also lives in Boca Raton, has been extra careful since the start of the pandemic to the point of insisting that her grandchildren are tested before visiting on weekends. In spite of this, three out of four family members contracted COVID-19 about a month ago.

“Fortunately, we were all fully vaccinated, so we had it mildly, but my sister in Durban got it and landed up in hospital. She hadn’t received the vaccination yet,” Polovin said.

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