Florida Hospitals Are Flooded With Partying Younger People
Often asymptomatic, they go right back out the door—and into the community.
A week ago, Jordan Rodriguez and his fiancée met up with two friends for tacos, chicken wings, and pitchers of beer at a local pub in Pembroke Pines, Fla., one of several outings the 38-year-old has enjoyed since the Sunshine State reopened for business in May.
“I wouldn’t say I felt safer, but I had started venturing out again a little bit,” Rodriguez told The Daily Beast. “I still wear a face mask whenever I go out and I have always been a germaphobe, so I’m regularly washing my hands with soap.”
Little did he know that the coronavirus was likely already gestating inside him. The following morning, Rodriguez felt lousy when he woke up. Initially, he chalked it up to a few too many beers. But as the day progressed, Rodriguez wasn’t feeling better. “I took my temperature and I had a fever of 99.9,” he said. “I knew I had to get tested.”
Rodriguez drove to the emergency room of the Cleveland Clinic Florida in nearby Weston, where he took a rapid test confirming he was positive for COVID-19, he recalled. His fiancée and his two friends got tested as well, but came up negative, Rodriguez said. “Since that day, I’ve felt no symptoms. I check my temperature regularly and it hasn’t gone up. But I’ve been quarantined in my bedroom.”
With the Sunshine State’s COVID-19 surge gathering strength like a monstrous hurricane, emergency rooms across the pandemic epicenter of South Florida are experiencing more and more patients in their 20s and 30s carrying the coronavirus. That squares with repeated explanations for case surges in the state by Gov. Ron DeSantis—that reckless, often young people are a big part of the problem. While DeSantis does acknowledge they pose a risk to others, the implication of his appraisal, critics say, is that the state’s hospital system is not in danger of being overloaded.
But some local hospitals have already reached or are nearing capacity, and these facilities are processing people like Rodriguez who took part in a reopening their government endorsed—only to get infected and exhibit mild symptoms. Such patients are often being quickly discharged, posing that very risk of spreading the deadly respiratory disease to elder family members, significant others, friends, and strangers should they not properly quarantine, health experts warned.
In other words, the state’s health-care system isn’t yet underwater. But it could be soon, according to hospital workers, internal correspondence, and experts familiar with state medical data. And the people sending asymptomatic younger people on their way have a front-row seat to the danger wrought by a reopening that, experts say, set the state on course for disaster.
“We know from the data that the cases are trending younger and we have a pretty good idea that it is related to the behavior of young folks going out to bars and house parties,” said Cindy Prins, a University of Florida epidemiology professor. “We tend to take more risks and live in the moment when we are younger. They may believe they are not at risk of being hospitalized, but they do pose a risk to others.”
When the state was in its version of lockdown mode, Cleveland Clinic had days when not a single person came in with COVID-19 symptoms, according to a nurse in the hospital’s emergency room who asked that their name not be used because they were not speaking on behalf of the hospital.
“Now, it’s about 10 a day,” the nurse said. “I had seven the last night I worked. All the ones I’ve treated are in their mid-20s to early-50s.”
“They test positive but they are not critical,” the nurse said in a separate interview last month. “We send them home with instructions to take ibuprofen, rest, and quarantine for 14 days.”
The hospital’s number of admissions, or people taking up beds, is lower than the number of people coming in to get tested. Cleveland Clinic’s Weston location is admitting an average of about three COVID-19 patients a day and only 20 percent of infected individuals admitted into the hospital were under 40, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Still, at a Sunday press conference, Gov. DeSantis said his state’s skyrocketing COVID-19 case count was largely due to young people going out and congregating in large groups without precautions such as face masks and social distancing. (He had also previously insisted the upward track was in part due to an increase in testing, and outbreaks among predominantly Hispanic migrant farming communities.) The governor pointed to statistics showing Floridians aged 18-44 were the primary spreaders of the recent spike.
“You can’t control… they’re younger people. They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” DeSantis said.
According to the Miami Herald, the Florida Department of Health recorded 43,964 new COVID-19 cases the week of June 21-28—the highest weekly number of infections to date. The state also set records for single day counts over the weekend. The 9,585 new cases on Saturday set a new single-day record that beat the previous record from just 24 hours earlier, when the state reported nearly 9,000 new cases.
The latest update from the health department on Tuesday showed 52 percent of Florida’s 149,781 cases were people between the ages of 15 and 44. However, tracking the demographics and the number of infected individuals who need hospital care is trickier. The health department doesn’t publicize the number of people currently hospitalized, providing only the total number of hospitalizations since the pandemic started. (Citing the governor’s office, a Miami Herald reporter tweeted the state will begin compiling and disseminating this data later this week.)
Rebekah Jones, the former Florida health department geographer who created the state’s COVID-19 dashboard and who claims she was fired for refusing to manipulate data, told The Daily Beast that the health department’s hospitalization data was not reliable.
“The state hasn’t released any criteria or metrics related to how they’re determining whether or not an ICU patient ‘needs intensive care’ and could simply be kicked out of the bed if a sicker patient came along,” she said. A spokesperson for the state health department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Herald noted that Miami-Dade County, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state, receives bed count information from local hospitals that are made public, which provides a small glimpse as to whether or not medical facilities are about to get overwhelmed.
As of Monday, ICU bed capacity in Miami-Dade area hospitals had hit 70 percent and the number of incoming patients was outpacing the number of patients being discharged, according to the county’s report. For instance, on Saturday and Sunday, 250 new patients were admitted, while 186 were discharged. A few hospitals in the county were veering toward maximum capacity.
Homestead Hospital reached capacity last week, according to CBS4 Miami. And its sister facility, Baptist Hospital of Miami, saw its count of positive patients and patients suspected of having COVID-19 rise from 98 to 124 between Sunday and Monday morning, according to an internal memo obtained by The Daily Beast. The memo stated Baptist was actively transferring patients to other facilities in its network, but that all its hospitals were filling up fast.
The document also noted that Miami-Dade was converting a shuttered hospital into a facility that will house positive patients, possibly providing relief to Homestead Hospital, which has seen a high number of migrant farm workers testing for COVID-19. That much, at least, was consistent with DeSantis’ line. County spokeswoman Patty Abril said Miami-Dade’s hospital site will only house COVID-19 patients from nursing homes who are being treated in hospitals, which in turn will free up more beds at area hospitals. A spokesperson for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
“We are still at capacity with people waiting for beds,” said a Homestead Hospital nurse who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity because their employer, Baptist Health South Florida, has enacted a policy prohibiting staff from speaking to the media. “Most of the people receiving a COVID-positive diagnosis are completely asymptomatic.”
A Baptist spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
At Aventura Hospital, which is located in northern Miami-Dade, first responders are bringing in more patients with COVID-19 symptoms comparable to the numbers during the early days of the pandemic, according to a paramedic who works there who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because Aventura has a no-media policy for employees. “A few of them needed ventilators, but most of them are stable,” the paramedic said, adding that they’ve also transported patients going to the emergency room for non-COVID reasons who still get tested and come back positive.
The paramedic was sure that the number of infected people would remain high, since individuals were not abiding by social distancing and face mask precautions, as everyone from health experts to DeSantis has said. “We’re seeing a lot of 18-35 year olds getting it,” the paramedic said. “Two of my coworkers are actually out sick now cause they got it… nothing severe, but they have to stay home until they’re negative.”
The paramedic hadn’t been tested, but was worried about catching COVID-19. “It’s been hella stressful… I’m starting to feel a little bit more concerned about getting infected simply because I feel like I’m seeing so much more COVID now than before.”
Aventura Hospital’s spokesperson did not return two voice messages seeking comment.
Beyond the real possibility of infecting loved ones and frontline workers, young people showing mild to no symptoms can also disrupt businesses that have resumed regular work schedules.
Karlie McCutcheson, a 23-year-old from Jacksonville, told The Daily Beast said she tested positive on Saturday after feeling run-down the previous week. “I was getting absurdly tired at work,” McCutcheson said. “Even my bosses noticed it. But it wasn’t until Friday night that I really believed I had caught COVID.”
She had picked up food from Chipotle, McCutcheson said. “I bit into my food and I couldn’t taste anything,” she said, relaying one of the telltale indicators of COVID-19. When she informed her bosses of her positive test over the weekend, they closed the office, McCutcheson said. “Everyone is working from home and has to get tested,” she said. “Each employee had to come in one by one to get their stuff.”
McCutcheson also believes her father and her brother caught COVID-19 from her when they went out to dinner for Father’s Day two Sundays ago. Her dad and sibling also tested positive last week. On Monday, Jacksonville—putative site of President Donald Trump’s Republican Convention acceptance speech at the end of August—adopted a mandatory mask requirement for public and indoor locations to slow the community spread.
McCutcheson said she thinks she got COVID-19 from her boyfriend before Father’s Day when they saw each other at her apartment. He tested positive shortly after their encounter. “In Jacksonville, it was like COVID was no longer a big deal,” she said. “Everyone had gone back to living their normal lives.”
Back in Pembroke Pines, Rodriguez said he will remain sequestered in his bedroom until he tests negative for COVID-19, noting he doesn’t want to infect his fiancée or her parents, who live with them.
“It sucks,” he said. “I’ve just been sitting here reading books, watching YouTube videos and binging on all kinds of TV shows. But I don’t want to be responsible for giving it to anybody.”