The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators and in ICUs has been trending upward at Duval County hospitals over the past month, according to data reviewed by WJCT News that isn’t released to the public.
Internal hospital tracking reports compiled by the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and Emergency Preparedness Division show that from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1, the number of COVID-19 patients in Duval County ICUs tripled from 12 to 36 patients. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators jumped from 10 to 20 in that same week.
WJCT News reviewed four of the daily reports spanning from early October to the beginning of November. The self-reported data from hospitals include the number of COVID-19 patients currently admitted to each hospital, available ventilators, the number of COVID patients currently intubated, and the number of COVID patients in each intensive care unit.
Trend lines show, in general, a spike in local COVID hospitalizations in mid-July and early August, followed by a downward trend through the late summer and early fall, and now a gradual ticking back upward at several local hospitals. The number of local COVID patients hospitalized since late June has generally remained higher than it was any point in the spring.
Data comes from Duval’s nine hospitals: the three Baptist Medical Center campuses (the Beaches, Downtown, and South), Mayo Clinic, St. Vincent’s Riverside and St. Vincent’s Southside, UF Health’s Downtown and North campuses, and Memorial Hospital.
The total number of COVID-19 patients that area hospitals were treating had been hovering around 130 throughout October, but it jumped to 155 hospitalized patients, per the Nov. 2 data, and remains above 150 on Tuesday.
Between Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, six of the nine hospitals in Duval County saw an increase in COVID-19 patients. Seven were treating more than 10 COVID-positive patients. Baptist Downtown’s number of patients with COVID rose from 22 to 30.
The hospital with the biggest influx during the past week was Mayo Clinic, which went from 12 to 22 COVID patients. That’s as the research hospital has been at 100% in-patient capacity overall.
In Duval County, ICUs were at more than 75% capacity as of November 2, which isn’t itself a worrying statistic, according to Chad Neilsen, the director of accreditation and infection control at UF Health Jacksonville.
“Typically ICU occupancy across the city is always over 70% or 80%, and so we certainly don't want people to see this and misinterpret it as the hospitals are full and I shouldn't go,” Neilsen said.
However, the recent rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and patients in the ICU is concerning in his eyes.
“The cases in the population can only increase amongst a younger crowd for so long before that spills into an older or more unhealthy population, which will end up hospitalized,” Neilsen said.
The hospitals and the city have so far kept the daily tracking sheets hidden from the public. Hospitals have used them since the beginning of the pandemic, Neilsen said, as a way of determining if a hospital needs to transfer patients to another facility.
Neilsen believes sharing the data sheets with the public would have its benefits.
“I don't think there's any major harm with showing it to the public,” Nielsen said. “And if it helps them be more informed, and it helps their trust and confidence level in the hospitals here in town, I think that's always a good thing.”
A spokeswoman for Baptist said that the medical system’s hospitals have been transparent in releasing data when members of the media have requested it.
WJCT News also reached out to spokespeople for Mayo Clinic, Ascension St. Vincent’s, and Memorial for comment about the data sheets but didn’t receive an answer from them before the publishing of this story.
City spokeswoman Nikki Kimbleton said of the data, “It's up to the hospitals themselves if they would like to make it public.”
Kimbleton said following WJCT News’ inquiry, Mayor Lenny Curry spoke with hospital leaders, who assured him that the overall number of COVID patients is still manageable, making up less than 10% of the hospitalized patients across Duval hospitals.
Curry himself does not look at the data sheets regularly, relying instead on conversations with hospital leadership, according to Kimbleton.
In response to a public records request from WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union in March, JFRD Chief Keith Powers said the tracking reports would be kept private “out of courtesy” to local hospitals, and city general counsel Jason Gabriel further denied the data release based on an exemption to Florida’s public records law designed to protect health care facilities from terrorist attacks.
Local attorney Jennifer Mansfield, who specializes in media law, told WJCT News the exemption the city used to prevent the Times-Union from accessing the documents is not applicable to these specific documents.
“It's clearly a public record because it's information that's gathered by the city and they assemble the data together,” Mansfield said. “So it's clearly a public record, to be available to the public, unless there's a specific exemption passed by the Legislature for it.”
WJCT News has filed a new public records request for the past month’s worth of data sheets.
Mansfield also believes that releasing the data would be helpful for the public.
“When you hear an opinion about what that data means, if you don't have the data in front of you, how do you evaluate the opinion?” Mansfield said. “This type of information is important for the general public to be able to judge what they're hearing, and to make decisions about how they're going to interact with the public at large.”
Some public-facing COVID-19 hospitalization information is available for Duval County, but it’s limited. The state Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard gives only an aggregate total of hospitalizations, not a daily snapshot. County-level tracking of COVID-19 hospitalization data is also available from the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration on a daily basis, but that website lists only the total number of patients hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 on a given day, not hospital-level data.
On a national level, NPR reported this weekend that it obtained similar daily hospitalization tracking reports that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collects, which are also not made public.
NPR reported that 24% of hospitals nationwide were at at least 80% ICU capacity. As of Nov. 2, that was the case for a third of the nine Duval County hospitals.
Sky Lebron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.