Southwest Florida COVID-19 cases trending up as holidays near

Liz Freeman
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

Southwest Florida is trending up in COVID-19 cases while health care officials warn of a winter surge and emphasize precautions.

Hospitalizations in Lee and Collier counties have yet to rise dramatically compared to elsewhere in Florida.

Hospitalizations statewide surpassed 3,000 this week for the first time since early September. There were 3,062 hospitalizations Thursday, according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

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Lee Health reported 92 patients hospitalized Thursday with COVID-19, which is nearly double from late September and has been steadily climbing in recent weeks.

In Collier, the NCH Healthcare System reported 45 hospitalizations Thursday, a 350% increase since Sept. 29 when there were 10 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to Jon Kling, chief nursing officer.

In terms of new infections, Lee saw 141 new cases Thursday; Collier added 45. 

Health care officials warn the influx of winter residents, people being closer together inside and the holidays are ripe for the trend of more cases to continue and a potential surge similar to summer.

Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, said it takes a communitywide effort to slow the spread of the virus through mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene.

“We’ve done it before, and I am confident Southwest Florida will come together again to reverse our current trends,” he said. “We are counting on our community to do their part during the winter season.”

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Since the pandemic began in March, Lee has had 25,457 cases and 538 deaths. Collier has had 15,611 cases and 267 deaths.

The arrival of the seasonal population combined with holiday gatherings creates new opportunities for the virus, Antonucci said.

The CDC this week issued an advisory saying the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is only with people in your household.

If that’s not possible, the CDC says to wear a mask with two or more layers and stay at least 6 feet from the people outside of your household. The agency also recommends bringing your own food and utensils if attending a gathering.

Antonucci said if hospitalizations during the winter become similar to July, when the numbers were in the 300s at Lee Health, that could greatly strain health care resources in season.

NCH officials and Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann held a virtual town hall meeting Thursday to update the community and returning seasonal residents about the status of the pandemic.

The message from Heitmann and Paul Hiltz, CEO of the hospital system, is that Naples is safe for winter residents and NCH can handle their medical needs for COVID-19 or other health conditions.

“We are opening up. We are starting special events,” Heitmann said. “We still emphasize wearing masks, social distancing and practicing good hygiene and go enjoy what Naples has to offer. Stay safe.”

Despite businesses getting back into normal operations, the city has canceled the Christmas parade and New Year’s Eve fireworks as a safety precaution.

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The Naples City Council at its Dec. 3 meeting will consider the mask mandate that’s been in effect in unincorporated Collier since summer and in place until mid-April, she said.

The city and NCH have a joint initiative, “All Heroes Wear Masks,” to promote mask wearing and the other preventive measures of social distancing and hand hygiene to mitigate spread of the virus.

“The initiative is about making sure we are personally responsible to ourselves and others,” Heitmann said.

Hiltz said he expects the collaboration between the city and NCH ultimately will show Naples did better than most cities nationwide against the pandemic.

Despite NCH seeing more hospitalizations with COVID-19, Kling assured the community that NCH has plenty of beds, equipment and a surge plan if needed to increase from the current 715-bed capacity.

“If we get to 95% bed capacity, we have processes in place to expand to 1,000 beds,” Kling said.

Kling said people are fatigued from COVID-19, but becoming relaxed about wearing masks increases risk of exposure.

There are no plans to curtail patient visitation to the hospital with the jump in cases, he said.

“Right now we are looking at that daily,” he said. “Today we are not planning on doing that.”

NCH intends to become a vaccine administrator when a vaccine against the virus becomes available, Kling said. The state Department of Health is delineating how vaccine distribution will happen, he said.

“We know it will be a phased approach,” he said. “We will share that as we know more.”

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