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‘No signs of plateauing’ in Florida’s COVID cases as DeSantis refuses to mandate masks

Over the weekend, Florida reported more than 21,000 cases in a single day — its highest one day total since the start of the pandemic. The CDC says schools should require masks as they reopen. But Florida governor Ron DeSantis said he will block efforts to require masks. Dr. Murtaza Akhter, an emergency physician at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Florida is experiencing one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the country at the moment. Over the weekend, the state reported more than 21,000 cases in a single day, its highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic.

    And a quarter of the nation's hospitalized COVID patients are in Florida. The CDC and a number of public health officials say schools should require masking when they reopen. The Miami-Dade school district is considering requiring students and staff to do so.

    But, on Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is opposed to any masking requirements, said parents and students should have the option to mask and that he would block any effort to require masking.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL):

    We have a lot of push from the CDC and others to make every single person, kids, staff, have to wear masks all day regardless of their immune status, regardless of the effect it has on their educational experience. And that would be a huge mistake.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's go to Florida now for an on-the-ground dispatch of what some hospitals are dealing with.

    Dr. Murtaza Akhter is an emergency physician at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami.

    Dr. Akhter, thank you very much for being with us.

    Give us a sense of who is in your hospital right now, the patient population.

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter (Kendall Regional Medical Center):

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

    We have got a huge influx of patients. It feels completely different from just two weeks ago, when it didn't seem as nearly as bad. But we have had this massive surge in COVID cases. So, have all these people coming in with COVID-like symptoms.

    And all of them, all of them that I see are unvaccinated. I have yet to see a patient with COVID symptoms who has been vaccinated in the E.R.

    And in addition to that, you have got all the other patients. Remember, gallbladder infections didn't magically go away. Heart attacks still happen.

    Last summer, a lot of people avoided the E.R., maybe too much so. But, this year, they are all coming in, along with the COVID influx. And add to that we have got a shortage of nurses and faculty, et cetera. It is creating massive delays in the E.R., massive delays for admissions. And it just feels swamped. Very stressful in the hospital.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When the patients come in, you find out right away whether they're vaccinated or not.

    What do they say to you about their decision not to get a vaccination? Do you have that conversation with them?

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    Well, sometimes, we do.

    As a matter of fact, oftentimes, we do, because, remember, the definitive treatment, the way of preventing it is to be vaccinated. And so for the ones who are healthy enough and live enough to be speaking with us and having conversations, we ask them, do you have a plan to be vaccinated, why or why not, and you get a variety of responses.

    Some of them are indeed planning on being so. But a lot of them — I don't know if it's a Miami thing or what, but a lot of them are very stubborn about it, despite their coming to the emergency department, pleading for help and to get better, they're refusing the most effective treatment we have.

    So it's very ironic that, despite their being in the hospital, wanting to get better, they're refusing the most effective treatment and going out to the E.R. and potentially infecting others.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what are they saying to you, Dr. Akhter, about why they're not getting the vaccine?

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    Well, in some cases, for example, they have heard of stories of people who've had bad reactions. As we know, those are extremely rare.

    If that patient happens to be one of the few, extremely few who's actually met somebody who's had that, then I suppose it's somewhat understandable what the hesitancy is. Some of them are trying to get pregnant. But, as we know, it's actually safe for pregnancy.

    But a lot of them just say they have their beliefs. They don't believe in it. They feel like there are various components in it that are put there by the government, a lot of conspiracy theories. And it's really shocking to hear that, especially as a physician. You hear that on TV, but to see patients saying things like that in front of you really is pretty appalling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tell us about the age range of these patients, because, as you know, back in the beginning, it was a lot of older people. What are you seeing now?

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    That's exactly right, Judy.

    Now the patients seem to be a lot younger. They are a lot younger. I think part of that is because the elderly were fairly good about getting vaccinated. A massive percentage, over 90 something percent of the elderly, have been. So that leaves the people who aren't the elderly to make up for the rest.

    And those people are often not vaccinated. Whether they think they're immune, which they're clearly not, or they think that the symptoms will be mild, clearly, we're getting a lot of them who are sick enough to go to the ICU, to be intubated.

    Listen, by the time we're intubating a bunch of 30-year-olds, I mean, we're not making this up, right? This is happening in front of us. It's a very stressful situation. Their family members are very stressed.

    And so, unfortunately, we're getting a lot of young and middle-aged adults who aren't vaccinated coming in, needing go to the ICU.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Akhter, I'm sure you know, but the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, is a major advocate not for requiring masks in your state.

    What effect do you think that's having on what's happening with regard to COVID?

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    Well it's ironic that, last summer, governors were saying in a lot of states, listen, we're not going to mandate anything, it's up to the communities to do what they want.

    And this summer, when certain communities do want masks, whether in school or otherwise, they're saying no, no, no, no, you're not allowed to do what you want.

    So I find that ironic. I got to say this. The science shows that the only way of preventing transmission if you're not vaccinated is distancing and not getting infected, or, if you have to be around people, by wearing masks. We have got great data for that.

    If everybody in the room is vaccinated, then you probably don't need masks. But we know not everybody's vaccinated. And, in particular, nobody under 12 is. The only way of preventing transmission of disease is distancing and masks if you're not vaccinated. It's simple as that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Akhter, one last thing.

    Based on what you're seeing now, what do you think the next few weeks are going to look like?

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    Well, unfortunately, it's not looking very good. I'm sure you have seen the curves. It is basically a vertical spike, with no signs of plateauing. And that's what it feels like in the E.R. as well.

    I'm hoping things level off. But I think it's very unlikely, given the way things are looking right now. And, remember, in addition to the surge in COVID patients, we have also got our own colleagues who are having to call out. We have got health care workers who are contracting COVID, multiple residents who, despite vaccination, have contracted COVID.

    So, despite being already stretched so thin, we're having to work extra hard. Just recently, a colleague asked me if I could cover a shift because one of her family members got sick with COVID. And so, despite how many shortages we have, we're being asked to work even more.

    And this is in addition to the even more surging patients. So, unfortunately, I think it's only going to get worse before it gets better. I hope I'm wrong, but, as history tells me, I'm feeling a little bit pessimistic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Murtaza Akhter at the Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, thank you.

    And we wish you and your staff and your patients the very best.

  • Dr. Murtaza Akhter:

    Thank you so much, Judy. Stay safe.

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