‘This is a crisis’: Polk health officials warn COVID-19 spread is worse than ever

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – The spread of coronavirus and the resulting hospitalizations are at an all-time high in Polk County, health officials said as Lakeland city commissioners agreed to work on a resolution urging residents to follow CDC guidelines.

“We’re in a danger-inflection point, in my view, to be able to continue to provide the care that the community deserves,” said Dr. Achinger, Managing Partner at Watson Clinic.

Dr. Achinger and other local health officials were called upon to address the distressing trends of COVID-19 in the area during an emergency Lakeland city commission meeting Monday morning.

Health officials say coronavirus cases have been on an upward trajectory in the county for 6 – 8 weeks with several hundred people testing positive every day.

The percent positivity rate, the percentage of tests with positive results, have been in the double digits since early December, health officials said.

“I am quite concerned that two of our key community indicators are worsening,” said Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Florida Dept. of Health in Polk County.

Watson Clinic is dealing with higher wait times and health care staff shortages, Dr. Achinger said.

“We have 80% more arrivals and visits in our urgent cares than we did December of the year previously,” said Dr. Achinger.

Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, the county’s largest hospital, has opened its overflow beds as hospitalizations climb, Danielle Drummond, Lakeland Regional Health President & CEO told commissioners.

There are more than 200 coronavirus patients at the hospital. Seven of them are on ventilators as of Monday morning, she said.

“I feel as though we’re able to manage our volumes right now but I do feel as though we’re on the crux of getting ourselves into a more dangerous situation if these numbers continue to increase. We know that we’re stretching our staff,” said Drummond.

The hospital hired 500 team members this fall to handle the anticipated wintertime surge, according to Drummond.

The hospital’s surge capacity plan is designed for 1,000 total patients. There are now more than 900 patients being treated at Lakeland Regional Health.

With cases sharply rising, Drummond fears the hospitalizations will only increase.

“We’re fully anticipating that these new cases that have been reported recently may then end up further increasing our COVID census which is of concern for us,” she said.

Don Selvage, the interim city commissioner appointed to fill Scott Franklin’s seat until a special election can be held, proposed a 100-day mask mandate and a call to action to county commissioners.

“I think we’ve reached the point where cheerleading is not enough. This is a crisis,” he said.

No other commissioners supported resurrecting the city’s mask mandate.

Instead, at Friday’s agenda review session, commissioners plan to discuss a strongly-worded resolution recommending mask-wearing and social distancing through March 31.

“Probably we’re posturing ourselves to make a very strong city-based statement on what we would like to see businesses and organizations follow,” said Mayor Bill Mutz.

Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County, said her department has received 5,400 vaccines, all of which are expected to be administered by the end of this week.

They began publicly administering it to residents 65 years of age and older at an event on Friday.

There are 150,000 people living in Polk County in that age range. Dr. Jackson cautioned it will be a “months-long process” to get everyone vaccinated.

The health department launched a vaccine hotline on Friday. Callers have waited hours on hold or not been able to get through. The number is (863) 298-7500.

Dr. Jackson says the county is working on an alternative.

“The county information technology group is working on an online portal to allow people to submit their interest in a vaccine online. That is in development,” she said.

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