Propelled by the ultra-contagious delta variant, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through Polk County, sending record numbers of people to the hospital, most of them younger than 50 and almost all of them unvaccinated.

That was the message Thursday afternoon at a news conference called by the leaders of Lakeland Regional Health, Watson Clinic and the Florida Department of Health’s Polk County office. The main way to prevent the spread, they said, is by getting more people vaccinated.

VIDEO: Full news conference

An emotional Dr. Timothy J. Regan, LRH’s chief medical officer, spoke of bringing children ages 8 and 10 to their dying parent’s bedside and issued a dire warning: “To those who are unvaccinated and are unconvinced to get vaccinated, we wish you good luck in this journey. The reality is you’ll likely get infected in the next few months. That’s just the reality of the data that we’re seeing.”

Some of the main points made during the news conference:

New infections have been doubling every eight to nine days in Polk over the last five weeks, according to Dr. Joy Jackson, the Florida Health Department’s Polk County leader. There were 989 new COVID-19 cases in Polk County on Wednesday, “absolutely the most we’ve had in one day.”  Said Dr. Steven G. Achinger, managing partner of Watson Clinic:  “Your risk of contracting covid has never been higher since the beginning of the pandemic,” 

Hosptalizations: At LRH, 275 patients on Thursday had tested positive for COVID-19, representing 30 percent of all patients in the hospital, according to Danielle Drummond, the medical system’s chief executive officer. That figure is nearly 100 COVID-19 patients more than the hospital treated on its peak day during last winter’s surge.

Age groups: Ten percent of positive tests at Watson Clinic are for children under 12, 30% for people under 30, and only 12% are people over 65, Achinger said. “There doesn’t seem to be a particular age group is spared,” he said. Many of the COVID-19 patients in the LRH intensive care unit and on ventilators are under 50, Drummond said.

Children: Jackson noted that 14% of Polk’s record new infections on Wednesday were in children 14 and younger, and she emphatically countered the notion that children don’t get COVID-19: “Kids can get infections; kids can transmit infections. The good news is that children, particularly young children, are generally less ill. Thank the Lord for that.”

Vaccinations: In Polk, 54% of eligible people — those 12 or older — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and the proportion of people who are fully vaccinated is around seven points lower. In the 25-49 age bracket, 41% are vaccinated but they make up around 50% of new cases, Jackson said. The most-vaccinated group is those 65 and older, at 83%.

The numbers of people being vaccinated started edging up as cases surged in July. During the last month, the weekly numbers have increased from 3,620 new vaccinations in Polk County to 5,222 to 8,200, and the weekly state report coming out this afternoon will show more than 9,000 new jabs, Jackson said. 

“So I want to especially thank those who were on the fence; they didn’t get it earlier, but they’re getting it now. And we need that to continue.” People who want information can call her to get the facts about vaccination, Jackson said, “which is that they are safe, they are highly effective, and they can help prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and death.”

Testing and positivity: Testing volume is rising, Jackson said. In the last seven days, 22,000 tests were reported in Polk, and the average case positivity was 25%. The goal is to be under 10%, she said, “and we were there the end of May and June,” when positivity rates dipped to 4%. “We were sitting pretty. We thought this thing was in the rear-view mirror. Boy, were we wrong. And that’s the hardest thing about this surge is getting people to believe it’s true.”

The delta variant is 60% more contagious than previous strains, Drummond said, adding, “If you don’t know someone with COVID-19 right now, the data is indicating you will know someone very soon.”

The local health care system is under increasing strain, Drummond said. In addition to COVID-19 patients occupying beds, the hospital has seen “a drastic increase” in patients coming for COVID treatment who don’t need to be admitted.

Breakthrough cases is a frustrating new term, Regan said. “With any new vaccine, there are always breakthrough cases. It’s to be expected. The idea is that you don’t get hospitalized. You don’t die. That’s what vaccines are for. So thank you if you’ve been vaccinated.”

Regeneron: LRH is treating about 50 patients a day with Regeneron and it has been effective in keeping infected patients from being hospitalized, Regan said.

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