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DeSantis cites ‘much better’ COVID-19 trends, says Florida has ample hospital capacity

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a news conference Monday at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in front of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Wilfredo Lee / AP

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed confidence Tuesday the state has weathered the worst of the resurgent COVID-19 outbreak and has ample hospital bed capacity to handle whatever comes its way.

“The trend is much better today than it was two weeks ago,” DeSantis said Tuesday during a roundtable with hospital representatives in Tallahassee. “I am confident the folks in our hospital systems will continue to do a great job and meet the demand. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear out there. I think we are going to be able to get through it. We are not there yet.”

Hospital and public health professionals, while reservedly supportive of the governor’s optimism, said their greatest concern isn’t intensive care unit (ICU) bed capacity, but it’s manpower shortages and strain on doctors and nurses, especially in South Florida.

“Our people are getting tired,” Memorial Healthcare System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stanley Marks said of his Broward County hospital staff. “They have worked tirelessly to manage this, and we are now in our second surge.”

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) COVID-19 dashboard reported 9,440 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, boosting Florida’s case count to 369,834 since March 1.

DOH reported 134 new deaths attributed to the disease, the state’s second-highest single day tally, bringing Florida’s death count to 5,319. There are 9,508 people hospitalized across the state, with more than 50 hospital ICUs at capacity.

DeSantis, however, pointed to a declining percentage of positive tests. Monday’s 11.1 percent positivity rate was lower than previous days. In addition, the number of new cases didn’t hit five-figures for the first time in five days, and the number of hospitalizations in hard-hit Miami-Dade County has declined from 3,200 to about 2,500.

The governor said the COVID-19 surge is not uniform across the state and some of the 50-plus hospitals reporting zero ICU capacity don’t have ICU beds to begin with.

“Just understand, we have a lot of rural communities and hospitals that have zero ICU capacity under any circumstances,” DeSantis said. “They just don’t have them. If there is a need for that level of care, patients are sent to areas that are a little bit more populated that have it.”

Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) Secretary Mary Mayhew, whose agency oversees hospitals, reaffirmed that Floridians who fall severely ill with COVID-19 will have access to ICU care.

“The capacity of the health care system is strong,” Mayhew said. “I know people are scared around the state, but they should have confidence in the health care.”

Analyst Chris Plance of Hialeah-based PA Consulting said it’s likely going to get worse for Florida hospitals before it gets better, expressing concerns about the demand on doctors, nurses and other staff.

“You can run these beds forever, but you can’t run a person forever,” Plance said. “Staff is going to get sick, and they’re going to have problems staffing at the level they are. This is going to become more and more of a problem.”

Florida Hospital Association Interim President Crystal Stickle said hospital manpower is being stretched thin.

Marks said the state’s sustained surge and increasing daily death toll proves “we’re not beating this disease yet” and called on Floridians to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing protocols.

“I’m concerned about my fellow Floridians that sometimes I see out doing things that just don’t make any sense in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “We have got to get our fellow citizens to understand it’s up to them to help control this disease. Right now there is no magical medical bullet.”

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