Florida’s summer COVID wave leaves Jacksonville gasping: ‘It’s like the floodgates broke open’

Written by on August 25, 2021

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COVID-19 variant hits Jacksonville, Florida arduous

As rapidly as one COVID affected person is discharged, one other is ready at hospitals throughout Jacksonville, the recent zone in Florida’s newest surge. However these sufferers are youthful, and getting sick quicker than final summer time’s pandemic peak. (Aug. 20)


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Shortly earlier than midday on Friday, Jacquelyn Graham-Townes leaned over a white casket containing one other particular person who ended up in her care due to the coronavirus.

The funeral director at James Graham Mortuary wore a black gown, pearls, a glittery masks and disposable blue gloves. She picked up a brush and frivolously utilized make-up to Willie Woodard’s brow, cheeks, nostril. Simply the correct quantity to have him look his greatest for his household on the viewing that afternoon. 

Because the funeral director labored, she echoed what medical doctors and nurses at native hospitals have been saying for weeks: What’s occurring in Jacksonville now could be worse than something the town skilled in 2020.

Final yr the mortuary dealt with funeral preparations for about 5 COVID-19 deaths. “Now I’ll do this in a number of days,” she mentioned. “I’ve accomplished 4 in someday. It’s just like the floodgates broke open.”

Florida is awash in coronavirus infections, and Duval County is struggling to maintain its head above water.

The 1,486 Floridians reported useless the week ending Friday is sort of 15% greater than the earlier worst week, in January. (The state hasn’t launched county figures for months now.)

Hospitalizations as of Saturday have been nearly 70% greater than final winter’s peak. 

Dwell coronavirus updates: Johnson & Johnson says its booster vaccine provides a ninefold improve in antibodies

It was all on show in Jacksonville on Friday. The frustration and exhaustion of these coping with the useless and dying. The nervousness of the sick, hoping to remain out of the hospital. The vigilance of academics and employees who’re attempting to guard Jacksonville’s youngest. 

The person within the white casket

Shortly earlier than the nation discovered itself within the grips of the pandemic, Graham-Townes’ father made her supervisor of the mortuary he began in 1987.

Whereas each service was affected by the coronavirus final yr – restricted gathering sizes, masks, livestreamed companies – it did not trigger a lot of the deaths she dealt with on the mortuary a number of miles north of downtown Jacksonville.

That is not the case this yr. In a single week, Graham-Townes dealt with 14 deaths from COVID-19. The youngest was 21, the age of her oldest little one. The frequent denominator: None was vaccinated.

That was true of the person within the white casket, too. He was 49 years outdated, a longtime worker of the Bacardi bottling plant in Jacksonville.

Friday was comparatively gradual: simply two viewings. One was for a 1-month outdated woman, unrelated to COVID-19. The opposite was for Willie Woodard.

Darlene Woodward arrived shortly earlier than three p.m. She wore a white gown and, on a bracelet, the 2 rings she gave her husband once they bought married. One was for being her partner. The opposite was for being her greatest buddy.

They met 11 years in the past. It was karaoke evening at Applebee’s. She went with a buddy who wanted some cheering up. When one patron began being disrespectful to them, this massive man stepped in. And he actually swept her off her ft.

Between tears, she laughed as she recalled dancing with him that evening, realizing at one level her ft weren’t touching the bottom.

They celebrated their eighth anniversary final month. A couple of days later, they began to really feel sick. They thought it was only a chilly.

“It didn’t click on,” she mentioned, sobbing. “It simply didn’t click on.”

He stored insisting he was high-quality. By the point it did click on, after his respiration had gotten worse and worse, they took him to UF Well being North. He died there, precisely three months earlier than his 50th birthday.

Loss of life is part of the job for Graham-Townes. It has been for generations in her household.

However this has been completely different. She pointed to the again of the mortuary, the place two extra victims of the coronavirus awaited her. She mentioned she avoids Fb, realizing what she’ll discover there.

“It’s an excessive amount of,” she mentioned. “An excessive amount of demise.”

It ‘looks as if a unique illness’

In a glass-paneled room at UF Well being Jacksonville, a affected person’s chest heaved. Two nurses, a respiratory therapist and different clinicians tended to the diabetic girl in her 50s, who couldn’t breathe on her personal.

As a final resort, they put her on a lung bypass machine. That was 5½ weeks in the past.

A nurse rested a hand on the affected person’s shoulder. Trauma surgeon Dr. Marie Crandall, considered one of eight clinicians crammed within the room at one level, stepped into the corridor.

“She’s – she’s not going to make it, sadly,” Crandall mentioned. “A member of the family is in there now. We do enable one after the other at finish of life – which is likely to be now-ish.”

Hours later, she was gone.

Such moments have change into frequent at Jacksonville’s trauma middle, a safety-net hospital that serves many uninsured and low-income sufferers. Deaths on the hospital in the course of the present wave are the best because the pandemic started, a spokesman mentioned.

Greater than 70 individuals have died there of COVID-19 this month alone. Like nearly all the hospital’s critically sick sufferers, all have been unvaccinated.

“It makes me indignant. It makes me unhappy,” Crandall mentioned. “I don’t perceive why individuals don’t consider in science.”

Area on the College of Florida educating hospital is at disaster ranges by CDC requirements. Contained in the cramped emergency division, some sufferers are parked on gurneys and hospital beds wherever there’s room.

Medical groups, in a perpetual state of triage, rushed out and in of rooms and huddled to brainstorm on the central nursing station, high-pitched alarms wailing of their ears.

Upstairs in a wing that till not too long ago was used for tuberculosis sufferers, 29 unvaccinated sufferers have been hospitalized Friday. Every nurse dealt with six sufferers as a substitute of the same old two or three. 

Akira Rivera-Perez, 24, was a kind of nurses. 

“It’s been very overwhelming. It’s been traumatizing,” she mentioned. “You see sufferers simply go down so rapidly. We solely have a lot we are able to do. And typically, that’s not sufficient.”

It’s Rivera-Perez’s first nursing job. She began throughout final winter’s surge. “Regardless that that one was unhealthy, this one is worse. Manner worse,” she mentioned. “It nearly looks as if a unique illness.”

A couple of days earlier, a affected person was moved to her flooring to create space within the ICU. Puerto Rican, like her, he reminded her of her grandpa. She sat and chatted with him in Spanish. However he rapidly deteriorated, unable to eat or breathe. She needed to wheel him again.

“I attempt to not make that connection. But it surely’s powerful, . You care about these individuals, and also you need them to be good,” she mentioned. “I like my sufferers.”

Rivera-Perez recalled a lady whose household could not go to as a result of they’d COVID-19. “She was simply alone on the finish,” Rivera-Perez mentioned.

Pastor Michael Girard, a hospital chaplain and youth chief, not too long ago endorsed a mother who misplaced her daughter to the virus. Two days later, she died, too.

Chaplain Cynthia Simpson mentioned a mom, father and son died days aside, as one other son struggled within the ICU on a ventilator. “Nobody needed to be vaccinated. Nobody carrying a masks. They usually had this huge household get-together,” Simpson mentioned.

Typically Rivera-Perez geese into the availability room to cry. She provides herself 5 minutes or till she will get one other name – whichever comes first.

“I’m so drained. Uninterested in seeing individuals get sicker, not higher,” she mentioned. “I simply want individuals would get the vaccine if they might.”

Some search remedy even earlier than testing constructive

Within the fast-rising morning warmth, the faces of 50 individuals ready outdoors the library in downtown Jacksonville confirmed the nervousness operating by the town. The road of individuals, some utilizing walkers and others in wheelchairs, stretched down the block by the point the doorways opened.

Inside, a convention room has been transformed right into a clinic to manage the REGEN-COV antibody cocktail from the corporate Regeneron.

Monoclonal antibodies equivalent to Regeneron’s – cloned variations of immune cells that efficiently fought off COVID-19 – have been proven to be 70% efficient at stopping hospitalization and demise when given to individuals inside seven days of creating signs. They don’t work when given later.

The individuals lining up hoped it will hold them out of the hospital, even when it meant 4 injections in several elements of their our bodies and a one-hour wait afterward for any unwanted effects.

Upon coming into the library, sufferers have been greeted by an odd signal: “Please don’t sit or lay on the ground.” It mentioned anybody needing instant medical consideration ought to contact a medical employees member.

It was spurred by a photograph that went viral displaying two individuals mendacity in discomfort on the carpeted flooring whereas ready to get Regeneron’s drug. The corporate managing the positioning introduced in additional wheelchairs and seating. 

Sufferers on flooring: Jacksonville Regeneron clinic photograph ‘doesn’t convey … ache’ of COVID-19 sufferers

Jacksonville was the primary of 17 Florida cities the place Gov. Ron DeSantis opened websites for Regeneron’s drug this month.

Sue Chauncey, 64, of Middleburg didn’t want a lot convincing. Two days after testing constructive for the coronavirus, she made the 30-mile journey to downtown Jacksonville. She in contrast the injections to bee stings and mentioned she’s optimistic the remedy will work.

“My physician mentioned I wanted to go get it accomplished as a result of I used to be very sick,” she mentioned. 

Julia McLendon, 66, of Jacksonville had examined constructive 10 days earlier and had been getting higher. Her fever and complications had gone away, however she nonetheless had an upset abdomen.

Her husband Howard McLendon gave a one-word reply when requested why he’s assured within the remedy: “DeSantis.” 

The governor’s endorsement has unfold the phrase about Regeneron’s drug, however even with hospitals in Jacksonville on the breaking level, this web site hasn’t hit its every day capability of 300 doses.

Former President Donald Trump credited Regeneron’s drug for his fast restoration from COVID-19. It has been extensively out there since December.

The remedy at state-run websites is out there to individuals 12 and older, no matter whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. No prescription or doctor referral is required. Sufferers mentioned they don’t even have to offer proof of a constructive coronavirus take a look at. (The state well being division did not reply to requests for affirmation.) 

Charles J. Miller of Jacksonville bought the injections Friday earlier than he had gotten his take a look at outcomes. He mentioned he hadn’t been feeling effectively and didn’t wish to wait any longer to get handled.

Leaving the library two hours later, he mentioned it was value it. “If it really works,” he mentioned, “it is higher than mendacity in a hospital mattress.”

On guard for the virus in school

At a center faculty in one of many poorest elements of Jacksonville, it is time to head to class. However the corridor is not jam-packed with college students. As an alternative, academics and employees escort college students to keep away from crowding. “Masks over noses,” they name out over sing-song pupil chatter. 

It is one of many many steps the college, like others inside Duval County Public Colleges, is taking to restrict the transmission of COVID-19.

“It is arduous being a principal in a pandemic, I will be trustworthy,” mentioned Tamara Feagins, principal at Younger Males’s and Girls’s Management Academy at Eugene J. Butler.

She has all the time been aware of youngsters’s security. “That was, ‘Is the gate locked? How will we keep away from intruders on campus? Have they got a customer’s badge? Did they register on the entrance?’ 

“Now,” she mentioned, “I’ve to fret about their well being as effectively. It is a complete further layer and dynamic.”

Virtually each one of many 300 or so youngsters at the Management Academy is carrying a masks. They selected to take action.

DeSantis banned masks mandates in public colleges. When the Duval County College Board instituted a masks requirement for its 125,000 college students, it allowed college students to decide out. After a prolonged board assembly this week, the district will quickly enable exceptions just for medical causes.

The primary week of college, Feagins hosted an meeting the place college students obtained face masks. She defined how individuals may shield each other from COVID-19 by training good hygiene.

“I educated them as a result of I can not simply assume mother and father inform them what ‘asymptomatic’ means, for example,” she mentioned. “I advised them the explanation we put on masks is to maintain one another secure and learn how to put on masks correctly.” 

As college students walked to class on Friday, it was arduous to identify anybody not carrying a masks. Feagins mentioned solely three college students within the faculty have opted out. 

Throughout Duval County, about 12,500 college students had.

For the reason that begin of college, the college has reported only one COVID-19 case, a employees member.

District-wide, Superintendent Diana Greene mentioned she anticipated greater than 1,000 instances amongst college students and employees this week. This time final yr, there have been 20. 

As a result of DeSantis and state legislators restricted funding, hybrid studying is not an possibility prefer it was final yr. 

Mother and father have expressed concern in regards to the lack of digital choices. Nonetheless, Feagins mentioned hybrid studying had its shortcomings. 

“It is arduous to actually get the children excited and enthused about coming to high school on-line,” she mentioned.

As she spoke, she periodically stopped to test on sixth graders. “How are you, candy pea? Are you aware the place you are going? Bear in mind to maintain your masks over your nostril.”

College students 12 years and older are eligible for the vaccine, and vaccine clinics are being organized at secondary colleges within the county. The Management Academy’s is Thursday. 

However till extra college students are vaccinated, faculty officers should do different issues to maintain college students secure, like social distancing – even when it appears inconceivable at first, like at a choral live performance. 

The varsity almost canceled its live performance final yr. “However I noticed the scholars and even the director getting a bit dim,” Feagins mentioned. “So I mentioned, ‘Let’s work out how to do that.'” 

As an alternative of standing on risers, the scholars have been unfold throughout the stage, in aisles and on floor degree, carrying masks.

“It is all about discovering a steadiness,” she mentioned. This yr, faculty directors hope to determine a secure solution to host the annual dance, too. 

“I simply need it to really feel regular,” Feagins mentioned. “This faculty looks like residence, and I wish to hold my residence and my household wholesome.” 

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, Mike Stucka, USA TODAY

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