COVID-19 keeps pummeling Marion County

Healthcare workers are shown at AdventHealth Ocala in this screen capture from file footage. [Submitted]
COVID-19 numbers in Marion County continued to surge last week with county schools registering hundreds of cases and area hospitals nearing capacity as the virus continues its spread. 

Locally, numbers released by the Florida Department of Health on Friday showed there were a total of 2,840 new cases in Marion County last week compared to 150,118 new cases around the state. The positivity rate also jumped to 30% locally, compared to 19.8% for the state.  

Both are all-time highs for the area since the start of the pandemic. 

Marion County Public Schools recorded 387 positive cases in the district, including 313 students and 74 employees, according to DOH numbers between Aug. 14 – 20 

MCPS also reported there were 1,995 people in quarantine because of a direct contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19, including 1,935 students and 60 employees. 

Meanwhile, the county’s percentage of vaccination is at about 58%, lower than the state average of 66%. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 99% of the county’s inpatient beds were occupied on Aug. 20, with 34% being covid patients. The county’s ICU beds were 93% full, with nearly half being COVID patients, according to HHS.  

As COVID patients continue to make up a larger percentage of inpatient hospital admissions, local hospitals have had to adapt to the rising population. 

“Back in March 2020, we built a 52-bed COVID unit in preparation for a surge of patients. During the original peak of the virus, we were able to care for COVID-19 patients on that single unit and didn’t have a need for additional space. Since then, with the introduction of the more infectious Delta variant, we’ve had to convert previously unused units within the hospital to cohort COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Michael Torres, Chief Medical Officer of AdventHealth Ocala. 

The Marion County School Board voted to approve a mandatory mask policy at an emergency board meeting on Aug. 16. The policy, however, allowed parents to opt their children out of wearing coverings without a medical or religious reason, and so far, 6,336 of the approximate 41,000 public school students have opted out.  

During their meeting, the board received guidance from Mark Lander, the administrator for DOH in Marion County, on when the mask policy could return to optional. Lander noted that the policy could change when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the county dropping to community transmission level of “substantial” for two weeks. Currently the CDC lists Marion County at a “high” transmission level. 

The number of cases at the substantial level is below 100 per 100,000 population. Last week, Marion County averaged 762.5 cases per 100,000. 

Lander also said the positivity rate should also fall below 10% before relaxing mask policies. School employees and vendors are required to wear masks, unless they have a medical or religious reason. 

In addition to offering free testing at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion, Marion County announced on their Facebook page they will be opening a second testing site at the Florida Horse Park on Wednesday, offering testing every Monday through Thursday. 

Torres understands even more accommodation might need to be made if cases continue to rise, but he is confident AdventHealth Ocala will be able to make the necessary changes. As of Friday, there were 76 patients in the AdventHealth Ocala COVID wards and 10 in the ICU. 

“Our hospital is designed to create flexible and expandable spaces for patient care. We have sufficient equipment available to quickly and safely convert existing spaces in the hospital into standard patient rooms or ICU/critical care rooms, should they be needed due to increased demand,” he said. 

Along with rising admissions due to COVID, AdventHealth’s emergency room is also seeing increased traffic. While they are currently not diverting emergency room patients, Torres said they have in the past to improve ER wait time.  

“We are seeing very high volumes with people needing critical care but also many looking for a COVID-19 test in our emergency department at AdventHealth Ocala. We encourage people to only come to the ER if they are having an emergency. We want to make sure we have the space to accommodate patients coming in with critical injuries and illness,” said Torres. 

The situation at Ocala Regional Medical Center and West Marion Community Hospital was not immediately available at press time, but as of Friday there were 162 patients in the COVID wards at the two hospitals and 52 patients in COVID ICU.  

The Food and Drug Administration announced on Monday that it had fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for prevention of the virus for individuals over the age of 16. The vaccine still has emergency approval for use with individuals between the ages of 12-15. 

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