Inside a Florida Hospital Full of Dying, Unvaxxed Thirtysomethings
MIAMI—After ending a 12-hour shift on Sunday, an intensive-care unit nurse at Baptist Hospital was ready to put August behind her.
The nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have permission from the hospital to speak to reporters, said the past month was the worst of the pandemic so far—echoing the horrific hard numbers in the state.
“It’s horrible,” the nurse told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never bagged so many thirtysomething-year-olds, leaving behind young kids, pregnant wives.”
“The screams when we tell them their loved ones didn’t make it,” the nurse added. “We’re exhausted.”
Across much of America, frontline hospital workers are going through similar stress and fatigue as they grapple with a devastating coronavirus surge primarily fueled by the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy. But in Florida, experts and medical workers say, a uniquely stubborn and denialist Gov. Ron DeSantis has helped transform hot vaxx summer into a summer from hell.
With skyrocketing numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths this summer, any optimism that the Sunshine State was rounding the corner on the pandemic has been laid to waste. And September may not offer any respite.
According to a Miami Herald analysis of recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Florida added at least 894 deaths on a single day to its August tally as reported to the agency this past week. According to The New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker, an average of 262 Floridians a day drew their last breaths during the seven days ending Aug. 31, representing about a sixth of the nationwide total. Over the past week, COVID-19 hospitalizations mercifully trended downward, except for Aug. 30, when there was an uptick by 10 patients, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Interviews with employees and internal emails obtained by The Daily Beast show how Baptist, like other hospitals, struggled to keep up with a torrent of new COVID-19 patients, a majority unvaccinated and under 65—and sometimes much younger. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief after a year and a half of nightmarish case loads, the hospital’s halls transformed into spectacles of pandemic skepticism and death.
Spokespersons for Baptist Health South Florida, the nonprofit company that owns Baptist Hospital, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In an Aug. 20 email to all employees, Baptist Hospital CEO Patricia Rosello told her workforce that the previous evening, three people in their thirties died from COVID-19.
“We realized this week that not everyone who works here realizes how different this surge has been,” Rosello wrote. “We want you to share this data and information with your friends and family as we all have to do our part in sharing the TRUTH. Many of your colleagues are having to face the multiple deaths of young people. We have pregnant patients with COVID in our ICU and that is something we did not experience before.”
Rosello warned that the start of the new school year and the Labor Day holiday would likely send more people to the emergency room seeking treatment for COVID-19. “Unfortunately, we will see our numbers rise, so we have to continue to be strong and resilient.”
Her email contained the hospital’s coronavirus update, which stated that Baptist had experienced a 700 percent increase in the number of patients not breathing and flat-lining throughout its COVID-19 units from June until Aug. 20.
“We’ve had code blues going off all the time,” the nurse working at the hospital told The Daily Beast, referring to an emergency code hospital staff respond to when a patient is in cardiac arrest or having respiratory issues. “It’s very scary.”
The same day, a separate email sent out to all Baptist hospital nurses informed them that the oxygen supply had reached critical levels.
“Everyone, please be extra aware that our oxygen supply is at critically low levels due to the high number of patients on high flow oxygen,” the email stated. “When you are rounding in your areas and in patient rooms, please ensure that the oxygen on the wall is OFF when not in use.”
The email also noted that the number of COVID-19 patients actively in the hospital had eclipsed 300—and that the number of patients requiring constant observation had risen to record levels.
A video clip uploaded to the hospital’s Facebook account that day showed a masked ICU nurse named Alexis choking through tears as she talked about treating an unvaccinated pregnant young woman and other patients in their adult prime. “COVID this time around is no joke,” she said. “It is beyond scary to see someone my age in here with breathing tubes and lines [inserted] everywhere you can think of. The fact that some of these people cannot hold their loved one’s hand is very heartbreaking.”
Amid the COVID-19 chaos, Gov. DeSantis has hardened his resolve against mask mandates in schools and to prevent businesses—such as cruise lines—from requiring employees and customers to provide proof of vaccination. On Monday, the state Department of Health even dangled $5,000 fines against businesses that require proof of vaccination.
The DeSantis administration is also facing new criticism for how it is tabulating the pandemic death toll.
The Herald reported Tuesday that the Florida Department of Health changed its reporting format for death data to the CDC as cases mushroomed worse than ever last month. The tweak in the reporting system caused the health department’s Monday update to show just 46 new deaths per day over the previous seven days. If the state had used the previous metric, it would show the number of average daily deaths was 262.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is in full combat mode, sparring with national media outlets and President Joe Biden’s administration while playing to his Republican base.
Last week, during an appearance on Fox News, DeSantis hyped his administration’s barnstorming push to provide free Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatments to people sick with COVID-19 at pop-up medical sites around Florida. The governor also made sure to take shots at the current occupant in the White House.
“You know, he said he was going to end COVID,” DeSantis crowed. “He hasn’t done that. We are the first state to start the treatment centers for monoclonal antibodies. We’re having great success with that.”
DeSantis intimated that Biden’s administration should follow Florida’s lead in making monoclonal antibody treatments easily available across the U.S: “At the end of the day, he is trying to find a way to distract from the failures of his presidency.”
Marissa Levine, an infectious-disease professor at the University of South Florida, said DeSantis’ approach failed to meet the needs imposed by a rapidly-changing reality.
“The pandemic is an evolving situation involving a series of outbreaks in different places at different points in time,” Levine said. “You have to continue learning and adapting as you go. You can’t create a line-in-the-sand policy to respond to a constantly evolving situation.”
She added, “I don’t think that approach is the right approach in successfully dealing with a pandemic.”
Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast the latest criticisms of her boss were unfair. She insisted the governor’s office, along with the Florida Department of Health, have consistently advocated for vaccines, and now monoclonal antibody treatments, as the best tools to fight COVID-19, based on science.
“Gov. DeSantis has done more than 50 events in 27 counties promoting the vaccines,” Pushaw said Tuesday. “At every Regeneron press conference, including three he did yesterday, he talks for a few minutes about the vaccines.”
Whether it’s fear of the Delta variant or DeSantis reminding people to get their shots at his Regeneron events, vaccination rates are up this past month, Pushaw said. She also said Floridians who were getting free Regeneron treatments have also led to recent decreases in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Even with Florida reporting an average of over 200 COVID-19 deaths each day during the last week of August—the highest in the nation, according to the Washington Post—Pushsaw said the state was faring much better than the rest of the country. That is, she argued, if you take into account the overall number of deaths since the pandemic began.
She pointed to the CDC’s rankings of age adjusted deaths by state, which shows Florida ranks 17th in the nation.
“The bottom line is that Gov. DeSantis is giving Floridians the facts about vaccines and the monoclonal antibody treatments,” Pushaw said. “Gov. DeSantis is saving lives by expanding access to free monoclonal antibody treatment. He feels that all Americans who could benefit from this treatment should have access to sites like the ones in Florida.”
Even if Pushaw can point to the governor’s Regeneron tour as having had a positive impact in helping alleviate strained hospitals, the situation inside Baptist’s intensive care unit remains dire.
According to the hospital’s Aug. 27 and Aug. 30 COVID-19 census updates, the number of patients went down from 248 to 222 between those dates—but the intensive care unit was still slammed. Both updates noted that the number of patients requiring “high acuity” care had not decreased at the same rate as people who come in and are discharged.
“High acuity means patients who have been intubated or need constant high-flow oxygen,” the ICU nurse told The Daily Beast. “Those beds are still full.”
The Aug. 27 update also said that a 50-year-old and three patients in their 30s died the previous day, and that 61 percent of the patients requiring constant observation were between the ages of 18 and 65. Staff were again instructed to keep tabs on oxygen levels.
“The statewide oxygen shortage continues to present challenges to hospitals throughout Florida, and the demand for oxygen will continue to increase, so conservation is crucial,” the update read.
According to the Aug. 30 summary, last month, Baptist had 90 patients die from COVID-19, the highest number of deaths at the hospital during any given month of the pandemic.
Last Friday, a second ICU nurse told The Daily Beast, the hospital only had 32 hours of oxygen left when she arrived for her shift.
“The oxygen truck came later that night,” she said. “Last weekend, the morgue was full and we had two freezer trailers outside. One filled up by midnight the same day.”
The nurse, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients she treated were unvaccinated, and of the ones who died, 99 percent did not get vaccines.
“It’s a nightmare I wish we could wake up from,” the second nurse said.