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"Bracing for the worse" in Florida's COVID-19 hot area

The virus is affecting patients at Baptist Health Jacksonville's five hospitals. They are also younger than last summer and more sickly.

Baptist now has more than 500 COVID patients. This is twice as many as they had during the July 2020 surge in Florida. And the pace of the increase isn't slowing down. According to Dr. Timothy Groover (interim chief medical officer), hospital officials are monitoring 10 forecast models and converting empty spaces into more than 100 beds. They also "brace for the worst" according to Groover.

"Jacksonville has been the epicenter of all this. They had one the lowest vaccination rates going in July, and that probably has really come back to bite them," Justin Senior, CEO, Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance. This alliance represents many of the largest hospitals throughout the state.

Duval County, which is almost entirely made up of Jacksonville, was won by Joe Biden. It is a Democratic bastion that is racially diverse. Donald Trump won the majority of rural, overwhelmingly white counties surrounding it.

All had lower than average vaccine rates prior to the highly contagious delta virus that swept through Florida. This drove caseloads in a state where one fifth of COVID patients are now being hospitalized in the United States.

Nearly one third of Jacksonville's residents are African American. Racial tensions in Jacksonville date back to Civil Rights, when 40 young Black men sat down at a department store lunch counter that was only open to whites. 150 white men attacked them with baseball bats and axes. The 1960 conflict marked a turning point in equal rights for the city. However, mistrust towards government officials persists.

It is only five hours away from the site of the famous "Tuskegee Syphilis Study," where unsuspecting Black men were used as guinea-pigs to study a sexually transmitted illness. Groover, a Black man, can understand why people are concerned, even though his hospital promises the best quality care and the most advanced technology.

Although the system is doing everything possible to spread the pro-vaccine message, it faces competition from rumors that are spreading through social media to local BBQs or church congregations. According to The Associated Press, black leaders in the community said they have heard all the details. This includes that the government uses the vaccine for implanttracking devices.

"A lot of rumors," Dr. Rogers Cain, an African primary care doctor who has a predominantly Black practice, said that his older patients are easier to convince to get the vaccine than his younger patients. "We have made a huge effort to educate. It hasn't really worked."

He said, "The people who were actually closer to the Tuskegee event are the ones who received the vaccine the fastest."

Although Duval's 56% vaccination rate is middle-ranking among Florida counties it has seen a 17% increase since July 1, one of the highest increases in the state.

Dr. Leonardo Alfonso said that vaccine skepticism is also high among Duval's Hispanic population which makes up 10%. Because they are desperate for staff, he rotates between two emergency rooms at Jacksonville hospitals. It typically treats 50 patients per day, but it can treat 100 on rare days.

"The ICUs have a bursting point. Alfonso expressed frustration that they were running out of ventilators. People are dying. It is so preventable.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently ordered a rapid-response unit to deliver monoclonal antibodies therapy to a wider variety of patients at higher risk who have become infected. This is in the hopes of easing "some of" the pressure on local hospitals.

Alfonso believes that vaccinations could have slowed this surge. However, when he asks patients about their shots, he gets this "deer in the headlights" look. It's a blank stare. Like they didn’t care or they just blew off it or they believed they were healthy and young.

Experts say it is difficult to persuade the uneasy to protect themselves and those around them.

Dr. Groover stated, "We're getting in front of every audience possible."

Groover's father is the pastor of one of the large, predominantly Black churches in the area. Groover claims that some parishioners have told him that they don't need vaccines because God will protect them. At a Sunday service, the doctor addressed the congregation and tried to dispel myths. He also described how he has seen families devastated by infections and death that vaccines could have prevented.

He said, "I received about 10 text messages later that day from people that went to Publix the same day and got their shot." "A large percentage of the members are now vaccinated."

In just ten days, Pastor George Davis buries six members of Impact Church in town. All were healthy and unvaccinated. Davis lost three close friends: a 24-year old man he had known since he was a child, a young woman from the worship team who had celebrated her first anniversary of marriage just weeks before she died, and another man in his 30s whom Davis mentored for many years.

This predominantly Black megachurch, which has 6,000 members, is hipster-chic with modern music and jeans and sneakers. After months of officials stating that the disease could not harm them, Davis has joined forces with community health officials.

His church members now have the ability to walk across the hall every Sunday and speak with a doctor about any vaccine concerns. Davis hosted two vaccination drives where over 1,000 people received shots.

He said, "As pastors, frankly we don't have much to lick our wounds." "Like a policeman, if someone they know has been killed, they still need to grab their weapon to defend those who are left."

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