JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As more and more cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 crop up nationwide, health experts in Jacksonville say they’re seeing a growing number of infections linked to the variant.
The concern for an infectious disease expert at UF Health Jacksonville is that the Delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S., is making patients sicker than before and shows no signs of tapering off anytime soon.
“It’s the perfect storm that we’re seeing and, unfortunately, it does not look like it’s going away,” said Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention for UF Health Jacksonville, which has seen its number of COVID-19 patients double recently.
As of Monday, UF Health was caring for 60 people who were infected with COVID-19, 23 of whom are in the intensive care unit and half of whom are on ventilators. The hospital suspects that 15 other patients are infected, but tests are pending.
That’s compared to 133 patients infected with COVID-19 at Baptist Health’s facilities in the area, 35 of whom are in the ICU.
“We have no doubt that these patients are coming in with the Delta variant of the virus, which is known to spread faster and in some cases be more severe,” Neilsen said of UF Health Jacksonville’s patients.
New infections have spiked in Florida, which reported 23,697 new cases in its weekly situational report last week. That’s nearly double the number of new infections the state reported the week before. Of the new cases, Jacksonville had 2,127, surpassing 2,000 cases in a week for the first time since February.
It’s unclear how many of Jacksonville’s new cases are tie to the Delta variant.
The Florida Department of Health has not released data on the number of Delta variant infections, despite a public records request from News4Jax.
“It’s unfortunate that we are not getting better information from the state of Florida on this,” Neilsen said. “What we get is basically what the public gets, which is just a breakdown of how many people are vaccinated and what the percent positivity is on a weekly basis.”
The surge of new infections is particularly concerning, Neilsen said, as vaccination rates have stagnated while restrictions requiring social distancing and masks in certain public settings have been lifted.
“We are looking at literally thousands of new cases of COVID-19 here in the city or in the county of Duval last week alone,” he said. “It’s not surprising. It’s just not surprising. The Delta variant is more contagious and there are no limitations in public right now.”
Besides hospitals, another area of concern is the county’s jails.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said there are currently 103 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its corrections facilities, including the Duval County jail. Just shy of 2,400 inmates are under precautionary quarantines affecting several dorms.
In a statement, Sheriff Mike Williams said his agency continues to follow CDC guidelines and undertake measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including testing inmates on admission and whenever they show symptoms.
“All areas of our facilities are regularly cleaned and disinfected in accordance with CDC guidance and all persons within the facilities are required to wear masks; inmates included,” Williams said in part.
Elizabeth Bland, the mother of an inmate, expressed concerns about the conditions at the jail.
“My concern is, you’re wearing protective suits,” Bland told News4Jax. “You are protected, but you’re putting biohazard waste containers in the dorms where the inmates sleep.”
Neilsen cautioned that the Delta variant, which is believed to spread more quickly, could transmit that much faster in close-quarter settings, like the jail.
“It’s going to spread like wildfire. We know that the Delta variant is more contagious, so anytime you put people in close proximity together who are not vaccinated, you’re going to see the virus move very swiftly through that population.”
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