‘This pandemic is our World War II.’ An up-close look at how a Florida hospital fights to save Covid-19 patients

‘This pandemic is our World War II.’ An up-close look at how a Florida hospital fights to save Covid-19 patients

A woman in a Florida hospital is struggling to breathe.

Surrounded by medical equipment and personnel working to keep her alive, she is gasping for air as doctors and nurses prepare for a procedure that has become all too common in the last 18 months: intubation.

The woman is sedated to allow doctors access her airway so they can get her on a ventilator.

The procedure involves using a slender surgical probe known as a stylet to guide a tube down the woman’s throat, according to Dr. Hudman Hoo, a pulmonologist and the medical director of St. Anthony’s Hospital’s ICU ward in St. Petersburg, Florida.

A laryngoscope blade is used to lift the patient’s tongue out of the way, and there’s a miniature camera at the end of the blade so that the medical staff can see the airway, he explained.

The procedure must be precise, yet time is of the essence.

A couple of minutes after intubation, there are signs of progress: The woman’s heart rate and vital signs improve.

For the patient, who is 75 years old, there’s a chance for survival.

Yet thousands of others across the nation are also hospitalized, and the prognosis for many is equally in question as they face the debilitating effects of Covid-19.

More than 101,000 people in the US are hospitalized with Covid-19, according to HHS data as of Thursday, and nearly 26,000 are in ICUs.

“We’ve seen overwhelming numbers of Covid patients,” Hoo told CNN. “This is one of the worst waves that I’ve experienced. Things are as bad with Covid as they’ve ever been in Florida.”

Dr. Warren Abel, a critical care physician at St. Anthony’s, said the majority of Covid-19 patients there are younger than 65, with some as young as 20. “This pandemic is our World War II,” he told CNN.

‘Spend a day with me. You’ll see we’re not OK.’

With the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant driving a new wave of infections over the last two months, hospitals have strained to handle an influx of patients.

Florida is one of a handful of states with ICU bed capacity at less than 10%, according to data from HHS. The national average is at around 20% availability as of Thursday.

Scott Smith, the president of St. Anthony’s, told CNN that not only has the hospital experienced a record number of Covid-19 hospitalizations, but the entire BayCare Health System has felt the latest surge. Hospitalizations have increased ten-fold since the beginning of July.

BayCare Health System comprises 15 hospitals, including St. Anthony’s.

Of the 28 ICU beds at the facility, 27 are for Covid-19 patients, he said, and around 85% of its Covid-19 patients are unvaccinated.

For the woman who had to be intubated, the hospital says she received her first dose of vaccine but was infected with Covid-19 before she had the opportunity to get her second, which would have been a necessary step in gaining full protection against the virus.

Hoo said that confusion about how the vaccine works has been relayed by some patients.

“We have had patients that come and request, ‘Can I get a vaccine now?’ But they don’t understand that it’s something that’s meant to be preventative,” Hoo said.

“It’s the unvaccinated patients that primarily are ending up on the ventilator and are actually dying from this process,” Abel said. “Almost always before they get intubated, they want to call their loved ones to tell them they love them and say goodbye. And unfortunately, oftentimes that’s the last time they speak to them.

“Every person that passes away that was unvaccinated, it’s a preventable death. It’s very, it’s, it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Sue Rivera, the nurse manager at St. Anthony’s ICU ward, challenged the thinking of those who believe vaccines are not necessary.

“Spend a day with me. You’ll see we’re not OK. I walk down the hall and almost all of our patients are on their bellies to help them breathe. And my nurses are tired, we’re doing the best we can,” Rivera said.

She shared that the latest surge changed her own mind about vaccinations.

“I am going to be very transparent. I thought I could squeak by this pandemic without getting vaccinated,” she said. “And when the Delta variant hit and I saw patients rolling into my ICU, younger and younger, my age younger, it really made me go get vaccinated only because I’m not ready to say goodbye to my children. I’m not ready for them to say goodbye to me.”

Her children, ages 18 and 20, are now vaccinated, she said.

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