As COVID-19 cases increase, the elderly no longer make up the majority of patients. County health officials say the increasing cases among younger residents reflect the community’s spread of the virus.
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LAKELAND – As daily COVID-19 cases increase in Polk County, the ages of those affected are decreasing.
Elderly patients are no longer the majority of those diagnosed and treated at Lakeland Regional Medical Health Center, said Dr. Hal Escowitz, Director of Quality and Director of Medical Informatics.
“We have basically seen a change in demographics or the type of patient we are seeing here in the hospital has completely changed in the past few weeks,” Escowitz said. “So initially, during the initial COVID course, the vast majority of the people we were seeing were the nursing home population that we knew came in dozens at a time. And they have dropped to maybe one a day, if that’s the case. ”
Instead, the hospital’s emergency departments are primarily serving younger adults and some children, Escowitz said Monday.
That suggests a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic locally. From March to May, Polk County cases were primarily due to infections in the elderly, including outbreaks in long-term care facilities.
However, in the past two weeks, cases have increased in younger age groups. The Florida Department of Health announced a record daily total of 185 new cases reported Sunday for Polk County, and 112 of them involved residents age 40 and younger.
Escowitz described his level of concern as high and continues to rise.
The county average age for cumulative COVID-19 cases has changed from 53 to 45 over the past week. The average daily age has been under 40 for 10 of the past 12 days, according to FDOH reports.
Recent daily reports have included some patient cases listed as 0 years old.
All of this indicates that Polk County is experiencing what epidemiologists call “community spread,” transmission of a disease without contact with someone known to be infected.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves as there appears to be much more dissemination in the community,” said Dr. Mark Vaaler, medical director of the Bartow Regional Medical Center and other BayCare Health System hospitals. “We went through a wave in which the community spread, then we went through a wave in which we had many positive cases in our extended care facilities, our nursing homes and assisted living facilities. And now what we are seeing in this next segment is much more community outreach in all of our different facilities that we are testing. ”
As of Tuesday, the Health Department reported 2,269 cumulative cases of COVID-19 among Polk County residents. Those yielded 419 hospitalizations and 78 deaths.
“The patients we are seeing predominantly now in the emergency department and admitted to the hospital are the youngest population in the community,” said Escowitz. “So we are seeing people in the workforce who have been away from home and have sick family members who are now entering the hospital for the first time. I suppose much of this could be attributed to confinement and social distancing as things slowly relax, but that is clearly what we are seeing in the hospital. ”
Escowitz said some patients in their twenties have been admitted to intensive care after contracting COVID-19.
Vaaler said a certain increase in COVID-19 cases was expected, as Governor Ron DeSantis and local authorities began to lift restrictions and Floridians began venturing into restaurants, bars and gyms. But he said the recent increase has been alarming.
“We are seeing the highest number of hospitalizations we’ve had in the entire outbreak through our BayCare facility,” he said. “The percentage in ICU (intensive care unit) is not as great, but certainly the numbers in ICU are almost as high as they have been. So we are seeing significant acuity of the disease in our ICUs. “
Even though total COVID-19 cases have soared recently in Florida, DeSantis said the numbers are largely being driven by younger, symptom-free people. DeSantis has cited that factor in rejecting suggestions that it could reinstate state restrictions on social gatherings or demand that all residents wear facial coverage in public.
Although younger people are generally less vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19 than the elderly, Escowitz said the demographic change is not a cause for complacency.
“I don’t know if I would think it’s a good or bad thing,” he said. “Certainly, many of these people have the ability to spread it to the most vulnerable population, and even in young people it is not benign. We see people outside of the workforce for several weeks; We see younger people who need to be hospitalized, and again they can pass it on to their parents. They can pass it on to their grandparents. More is more. For me, at least, it doesn’t bode well as something we should celebrate. ”
Vaaler made a similar point.
“That is the danger that young people between the ages of 18 and 34 will not get as sick, but they certainly run the risk of passing it on to their parents, their aunts, their uncles, their coworkers,” he said. “So I am very, very concerned that that spread will affect the older population again as this age group continues to interact with them. And as you know, it is well documented that asymptomatic patients can still transmit the virus. “
The general intensive care capacity at Lakeland Regional is almost the same as at the peak of the pandemic, Escowitz said.
“We are slowly building a population of community-based COVID cases,” he said. “Then I wouldn’t say that we haven’t had an explosion; COVID does not overwhelm the hospital in any way. But we have had this continuous and constant rate of admission and rate of increase. It’s just the type of patient we’re seeing and where they’re coming from is completely different. “
Gary White can be contacted at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @ garywhite13.