MIAMI HERALD: “Coronavirus hasn’t swamped Miami-Dade hospitals, helping fuel push to reopen parks”

Coronavirus patients haven’t swamped Miami-Dade hospitals yet, a trend that’s helping Mayor Carlos Gimenez frame a plan to eventually ease restrictions on parks, marinas and other recreational activities.

For now, there are far more beds awaiting COVID-19 patients than are occupied by them. More than two dozen hospitals participating in a twice-daily survey by Miami-Dade reported Wednesday that coronavirus patients occupy about 28 percent of the available intensive-care beds.

But as newly discovered COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Miami-Dade and across Florida, local hospitals haven’t yet shown a consistent decline in patients infected with the virus.

The total number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has dropped from a high 720 on Saturday to 654 on Wednesday. That’s still nearly 40 percent larger than the number of COVID-19 patients that hospitals reported when the hospital survey began on April 5. State COVID-19 figures show Miami-Dade’s hospitalization growth slowing down from last week, but still expanding at about 9 percent as of Wednesday.

Gimenez this week cited encouraging hospital trends in announcing his “Moving to a New Normal” initiative to create a strategy for lifting restrictions that closed businesses and restricted where residents could travel in public. “We’re seeing a light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel, starting with the number of hospitalizations, which are steadying in Miami-Dade County,” he said in a video address Monday.

On Wednesday, he held a private teleconference with elected leaders, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, doctors, and others to discuss how to ease closures on parks, marinas, beaches and golf courses.

Gimenez asked for recommendations by Friday for a strategy that would tie reopening some recreational spots to meeting public-health benchmarks. “It will probably be a slow easing,” said Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez, who participated in the meeting. “We’re all in agreement that the health experts first have to feel comfortable with it.”

Bermudez said medical authorities on the call, which included representatives of the Florida Department of Health, said Miami-Dade’s COVID-19 numbers aren’t showing a green light yet for looser restrictions.

“They felt we’re not there yet, that they wanted to wait until the peak,” he said. “The numbers have gotten better, but they’re not where they feel comfortable.”

In a statement Wednesday night, Gimenez said decisions on lifting restrictions will be based on meeting “statistical metrics” showing that fewer rules are needed. He told sports radio host Andy Slater later that night that the “party nature” of beaches would probably make them most challenging to reopen, but that some recreational areas would be available again “in the not too distant future.”

Daniella Levine Cava, a Miami-Dade commissioner who has been a top critic of Gimenez’s COVID-19 response, said she supported the idea of opening the areas of parks that don’t encourage close contact by visitors. “I believe giving our community access to paths where people can bike, run and take a walk is responsible, and avoids people on the roads and crowding on sidewalks,” she said.

Tying a strategy to lift some recreation restrictions to targets on hospital statistics would let Gimenez announce a plan that would take effect as numbers improve.

Hospital executives said the county reports capture what they’re seeing during the coronavirus pandemic: a steady increase in cases that hasn’t caused a crisis, but hasn’t shown signs of retreat either.

“As you’ve seen in the figures we’ve released, the number of COVID-positive patients in our hospitals has increased slightly but steadily almost every day,” said Matthew Pinzur, a vice president at Jackson Health, the county’s public hospital system. “We still have ample capacity in beds, ventilators, and supplies to safely manage for the foreseeable future, but no one can be certain when and how this will reach its peak.”

‘A LIGHT AT THE END OF THIS TUNNEL’

Miami-Dade isn’t requiring hospitals to report the number of patients who die of COVID-19 while under their care. Mortality statistics tracked by Florida show COVID-19 deaths still rising steadily in Miami-Dade, a measure that likely captures infection rates from weeks ago.

The latest tally of 155 deaths released Wednesday night is more than double where it was last Wednesday. The state death count is also lower than the COVID-19 fatalities tracked daily by the county’s Emergency Operations Center, which reported 178 deaths Wednesday night.

The county this week started blood tests for residents selected at random, in an effort to estimate what share of the population has antibodies produced by COVID-19. That could help determine how far the virus has spread.

Miami-Dade leads the state in COVID-19 cases. A three-day average of state statistics shows known COVID-19 cases in Miami-Dade up about 5 percent a day, down from a growth rate in the teens last week. Case growth tends to rise and fall with the amount of testing, which is growing at about 5 percent, too.

Even a decline in new cases or coronavirus patients admitted to Miami-Dade hospitals would mean only temporary relief if the encouraging numbers prompt local governments to reverse closures too quickly. As businesses and public spaces reopen, increased interaction can spark more intense spread of the virus. That would then lead to more demand on hospitals.

For now, the more than 8,000 known COVID-19 cases in Miami-Dade have not filled hospitals or led to shortages of critical-care beds or ventilators, according to the surveys that Gimenez, through an emergency order issued on April 4, demanded hospitals submit to the county.

For Jackson’s three hospitals, the volume of COVID-19 patients has increased by about 30 percent since early April, according to the survey, to 152. Of those, 67 occupy intensive-care beds, leaving 115 ICU beds empty as of Wednesday for patients with the most severe symptoms.

HOSPITALS READY FOR A COVID-19 SURGE

At the Baptist hospital system, COVID-19 admissions are down slightly from the start of April, from 70 to 67. New patients have kept pace with discharges, with 55 new COVID-19 patients being admitted and 57 leaving the system since early April. Despite the stable short-term trend, Baptist administrators say they’re planning for more demand as the virus spreads.

“Based on models, we are continuing to prepare for a surge in the coming weeks,” said communications director Georgi Morales Pipkin.

At Miami Beach’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, COVID-19 cases have been creeping up this week, climbing to 48 after being in the mid-30s last week. About half of Mount Sinai’s COVID-19 patients are in intensive care, leaving 58 open ICU beds.

David Farcy, Mount Sinai’s director of emergency medicine, said it’s important to link encouraging hospital trends to efforts across the community to slow the spread of the virus — measures that will be crucial to prevent a future wave of cases that could still overwhelm healthcare providers.

“I want to attribute this to people socially distancing. People really, really following that — and hand washing,” he said. “Even though we’re going to have a surge … the prediction is not the thousands of cases. That’s great news.”

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