SARASOTA — A month ago, the COVID-19 patient census at Sarasota Memorial Hospital was in the single digits.
There were no infected patients in the ICU and the testing positivity rate was under 2%.
That was no longer the case Tuesday, when SMH had 43 COVID-19 patients — the most since late April — with six of them in the ICU and a positivity rate of 8.7%.
Dr. Manuel Gordillo, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the hospital, said in a Monday video update that the Delta variant of the virus is primarily to blame.
It’s twice as transmissible as the Alpha variant that cause the surge last fall, he said. In turn, the Alpha variant was twice as transmissible as the original strain.
“It’s always a competition between us, our vaccines and the virus,” he said. “Right now the virus has the upper hand.”
Contributing factors, he said, are the leveling off of vaccinations in the county — increasing by only 3 percentage points in the last six weeks; increased mobility among the populace; and the weather, which causes people to spend more time indoors.
Vaccines have made the illness largely preventable, he said, so having more than 30% of eligible people unvaccinated is “extremely concerning” and “very frustrating because we know we have the tools to protect people.”
Through Monday, SMH had admitted about six “breakthrough” cases — infections in fully vaccinated people — out of about 100 COVID-19 admissions in the last 30 days, Gordillo said.
There likely have been more breakthrough cases, he said, but because of the vaccine the infected person either was asymptomatic or not ill enough to require hospitalization.
The people who do aren’t just sicker, he said — they’re also younger. Patients in their 40s and 50s are now more prevalent than those in their 60s and 70s, as at the outset of the pandemic, Gordillo said.
The few deaths SMH has seen over the last several months have still mostly been seniors, he said.
Preventing hospitalizations and deaths is the first goal of vaccination, he said, but it’s also key to stopping the spread of the virus, which needs new hosts to replicate — and mutate.
“We’re going to be dealing with this over and over if we continue to deal with new variants,” Gordillo said.
The virus is 20 times more likely to infect someone who’s unvaccinated than someone who is, he said.
“If it gets introduced in a population, we know it’s going to find the targets, and the targets are the unvaccinated,” he said.
Of the roughly 30% of the county’s population that’s unvaccinated, probably two-thirds are “vaccine hostile,” not vaccine hesitant, Gordillo said, and can’t be won over.
The remainder, he said, “we can work with, and we’re not giving up on them.”
Most otherwise healthy people recover from an infection without further consequences.
However, unvaccinated people need to bear in mind the risk of transmission to people who might not, as well as the fact that about 30% of people who contract COVID-19 still have symptoms after two months.
Continuing problems range from fatigue and mental fogginess to respiratory failure necessitating a lung transplant, he said.
Children under 12 and some people with medical conditions can’t be vaccinated. The best way to protect them is for everyone around them to be vaccinated.
He said he recently changed his mind about the safety of going maskless.
“Right now we’re seeing so much of this exponential growth that I would advocate everybody that goes indoors these days should probably wear a mask when they go indoors in public,” he said.
He said he was more optimistic until a week or so ago. Now it appears as though the area is only about halfway through the latest surge, and another one is expected in the fall or early winter.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is becoming a very dim light very far away,” he said.