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Florida Now Leads The Nation In New COVID-19 Cases

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Florida now leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases. One in five new cases in the U.S. is being reported there. In the Tampa Bay area, cases have nearly doubled since last week, and hospitals report seeing more and more patients with the virus, including Tampa General Hospital, where Dr. Peggy Duggan is the chief medical officer, and she joins us now. Dr. Duggan, good morning.

PEGGY DUGGAN: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: Thanks for being with us. How many COVID-19 patients does your hospital have now compared to a few weeks ago?

DUGGAN: So a few weeks ago, around the Fourth of July holiday, we had 12 to 14 patients a day, and now we're seeing about 70 to 80 patients admitted to the hospital daily.

MCCAMMON: That is a really fast increase. How are you dealing with it? Do you have enough beds?

DUGGAN: So we do. Fortunately, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, the plan here at Tampa General Hospital was to develop a unit with - that we could flex up and down based on the number of patients and that we could keep those patients isolated from the rest of the hospital. And that's our Global Emerging Diseases Institute, which we're really fortunate to have developed during the first wave of the pandemic.

MCCAMMON: And, Dr. Duggan, how is this current group of patients you're seeing there in Tampa different from what you saw earlier in the year? Are many of them vaccinated?

DUGGAN: So primarily, our admitted patients now are unvaccinated. And anywhere between 85% to 90% of our inpatients during this surge are unvaccinated, and therefore, potentially, this is an avoidable situation for them.

MCCAMMON: Now, we've been hearing reports in other states of unvaccinated COVID patients desperately wanting the vaccine after they've been hospitalized. Some very sad stories there. Has that been happening at your hospital, at Tampa General?

DUGGAN: Yeah, certainly. So our patients do and will want the vaccine once they're - they have to be recovered, though, from the virus. And so we are working on creating an environment where we can provide that vaccine to our patients once they're eligible. I do think there will be some patients who will still plan not to have the vaccine and make that personal decision, but we're hoping that we see an increase in either patients in the community or in our patients here in the hospital who are looking to be vaccinated.

MCCAMMON: What are those conversations like when patients come in who have not been vaccinated and are now very sick?

DUGGAN: So those have been challenging for our staff. I have to say, I give a lot of credit to our nursing and physician staff, as well as our PCAs who are at the bedside really talking with these patients. They're - we really have to be thoughtful of the decisions they've made to date, take care of them when they're sick and really help them through this challenging time. But it's challenging for our staff. They've been working hard throughout the entire pandemic. And so they're - this is a difficult time for them.

MCCAMMON: Vaccination rates in the Tampa Bay area are around 55%. What do you think it will take to get those numbers up higher?

DUGGAN: So I'm hopeful that with further education and with continued open conversation and dialogue, people will come to the conclusion that this is what's best for their health. There are a couple of things that are barriers to this getting through. One is just information, right? So lots of people who've had COVID think they don't need the vaccine. And they definitely do. And we've seen people who've had COVID come in with the delta variant very sick. So that's a really important piece of information. And then the other is that - I'm too young; I don't need it. Or for those who are pregnant or thinking about being pregnant, there's been real concern there, and all of those people need to be vaccinated now. So it's really about getting the right information out to the community and helping people make good decisions for their health.

MCCAMMON: So what is your message? I mean, how do you advance the conversation at this point?

DUGGAN: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: This far into the pandemic, people still are saying no. How do you persuade them?

DUGGAN: Couple of things. I do - I talk with them about their community, right? So people really care about their friends and neighbors, and lots of the reason we get vaccinated is to protect our community. And so we have - and particularly at Tampa General, we have a lot of vulnerable patients. We have a large transplantation program. All of those patients are on medication that drop their immune system. We have a large cancer program. And so I really do talk to people about how those patients, when they're vaccinated, may not be as protected as the rest of us, and they're counting on us to get vaccinated, to protect them so that we can stop the advancement of this disease.

And the other thing we're talking a lot about now is our children. So the children of Florida and the rest of the country don't have access. If you're less than 12, you're not eligible to be vaccinated. We all need to do our part so the children are kept safe and don't become infected with this disease. It's really critical to think about each other in this moment.

MCCAMMON: Unfortunately, as you know, vaccines have become politicized during this pandemic. How much has that reality factored into vaccine hesitancy? And how much are you seeing that there as you talk with your patients?

DUGGAN: I think this is more about information, right? There's no question that there's been politicization of this vaccination across the country, but this is really more about good information if you ask me. I think if we continue to provide people good, solid information, we answer their questions - and the biggest thing for me is really listening, right? The thing we have to do is listen to people, as physicians, as nurses, as providers, always, listen to people where they are, try to understand their position and really help them walk through this. And it is arduous. It's a - I've talked to people here in the hospital - everyone has my cellphone. One call at a time, I'll talk to somebody and walk through their concerns.

MCCAMMON: And briefly, how ready are you for another surge that is being predicted?

DUGGAN: So we have definitely geared up at the hospital. We have plans from the last surge that we are walking through now and making cautious decisions about how to keep everybody safe. But this is something we've been working on for a while, and we'll just have to execute as the days come on.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer at Tampa General Hospital. Thanks so much.

DUGGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.