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Florida COVID surge keeps getting worse; Texas brings in out-of-state nurses as hospitals fill. Latest COVID-19 updates.

The skyrocketing COVID-19 surge in Florida is shattering records and ravaging the state’s younger population.

Florida has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks because of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which has led to a major increase in state hospitalizations. By next week, 68% of hospitals are expected to reach a critical staffing shortage, according to an Aug. 9 survey by the Florida Hospital Association.

The majority of Florida’s new cases are among individuals between the ages of 20 and 39, who remain among the least vaccinated age groups in the state.

Hospital officials are also seeing an influx of young, healthy adults filling their wards across the state, many requiring oxygen. In the past week in Florida, 36% of the deaths occurred in the under-65 population, compared with 17% in the same week last year when the state was experiencing a similar COVID surge.

Kristen McMullen, a 30-year-old woman from West Melbourne, Florida, died earlier this month — a week after giving birth to her daughter via emergency C-section.

Statewide, Florida set a record last week, reporting 151,415 new COVID-19 cases, according to the state health department. The state reported an all-time high of 24,869 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker.

Florida is the national leader in COVID-19 deaths, averaging more than 150 a day in the past week. Health officials say the number of deaths jumped significantly from 600, reported in the previous week, to more than 1,000 reported this week. New deaths tallied by the state health department raise the total coronavirus death toll to 40,766.

“Each day the question is how can this possibly get worse. Worster. Worstest. And it does,” physician Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted.

Education Department urges Texas, Florida to reverse school mask bans

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is weighing in on the escalating tension between state governors and local authorities over whether universal masking mandates should be implemented in schools.

The secretary sent letters Friday urging Republican governors in Florida and Texas to reverse their rulings banning mandates in schools and said the Department of Education stands with local leaders and school administrators who have adopted masking requirements in defiance of governors.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office this week threatened the salaries of local school officials who proceed with mask mandates after DeSantis last month prohibited county school boards from imposing masking requirements on students. Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach counties have announced mask mandates anyway.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools, and some districts have also said they would defy this order. Cardona wrote a similar message of support for those school leaders.

Some may be better off canceling plans during COVID-19 surge, experts say

Health experts say travel risks vary from person to person, but it may be time for certain travelers – especially those who are unvaccinated or susceptible to severe illness from the virus – to postpone their trips.

Purvi Parikh, an immunologist who has worked as an investigator for some of the COVID-19 vaccine trials, advises vaccines for travelers since the majority of the recent COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people. She also suggests checking local guidance and infection rates before booking a flight.

Why some unvaccinated Americans are changing their tune and how that could help curb latest COVID surge

As more and more unvaccinated people lose loved ones to COVID-19, a chorus of regrets has started to resonate. Experts say those voices could persuade fence-sitters to get vaccinated – a crucial step toward ending the pandemic.

The human mind has reality constraints that make it difficult to grasp the severity of a situation before personally experiencing it, New York University Psychology Professor Jay Van Bavel told USA TODAY. Once you’re in a hospital bed, you can no longer deny the virus, he said.

Reasons vary among those who won’t get jabs: concerns about side effects and long-term consequences; misconceptions about the vaccine such as the false claim that the shots will impact fertility; a failure to grasp how deadly the virus can be. And others are awaiting full FDA approval, which could come as early as this month.

Van Bavel said words of warning from those formerly opposed to vaccines are an effective tool to persuade those who are hesitant or opposed.

“Personal stories are one of those things that can cut across partisan divides,” unlike statistics and scientific data, he said. Read more.

– Kate Mabus, USA TODAY

States that had a grip on COVID-19 now seeing a crush of cases

The COVID-19 surge that’s sending hospitalizations to all-time highs in parts of the South is also clobbering states like Hawaii and Oregon that were once seen as pandemic success stories.

After months in which they kept cases and hospitalizations at manageable levels, they are watching progress slip away as record numbers of patients overwhelm bone-tired health care workers.

Oregon — like Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana in recent days — has more people in the hospital with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic. Hawaii is about to reach that mark, too.

This, despite both states having vaccination levels higher than the national average as of last week. On its worst day in 2020, Hawaii had 291 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus. Officials expect to hit 300 by the end of this week.

“Our doctors and nurses are exhausted and rightfully frustrated because this crisis is avoidable,” said David Zonies, associate chief medical officer at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University. “It is like watching a train wreck coming and knowing that there’s an opportunity to switch tracks, yet we feel helpless while we watch unnecessary loss of life.”

– Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Andrew Selsky; The Associated Press

‘Disastrous combination’: Wildfires linked to thousands of COVID cases, study says

Last year’s historic wildfire season also made the pandemic worse, according to a new study.

Fine particulate air pollution has been previously linked to an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and researchers have now found connections between poor air quality from wildfire smoke and U.S. COVID data, according to a release from Harvard University.

The study found that an increase in air pollution led to a rise in cases and deaths over the course of weeks. In some of the hardest-hit counties, the study blamed air pollution for cases and deaths that increased by more than 50%.

The study, published by Science Advances on Friday, estimates that in total, nearly 20,000 cases and 750 deaths were linked with the poor air quality. The research focused on California, Oregon and Washington, where last year’s worst fires burned.

“In this study we are providing evidence that climate change — which increases the frequency and the intensity of wildfires – and the pandemic are a disastrous combination,” the release quotes Francesca Dominici, the senior author of the study.

– Joel Shannon, USA TODAY

US border officials are seizing fake COVID vaccine cards every day

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials said Friday they are intercepting the import of counterfeit CDC vaccine record cards every single day.

At the port of Memphis, officials have seized at least 121 shipments of over 3,000 of these counterfeit cards, which mostly come from China and may contain spelling and grammar errors, the department said Friday.

“These vaccinations are free and available everywhere,” said Memphis Area Port Director Michael Neipert in a statement. “If you do not wish to receive a vaccine, that is your decision. But don’t order a counterfeit, waste my officers’ time, break the law, and misrepresent yourself.”

The department said the shipments are destined all over the U.S. It also emphasized that according to the FBI, the buying, selling or use of counterfeit vaccine documents is a federal crime.

The seizures come as college campuses are raising concerns about students using fake vaccine cards amid vaccine mandates for the fall term. Some institutions have said expulsion is on the table for students who are caught using the counterfeits.

Latter-day Saints leaders urge members to get COVID vaccine, wear masks

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints again urged its 16 million-plus members to help limit the spread of COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and wearing a face mask in public settings.

In a statement this week, the latest in a series of encouragements to its members, church leaders said, “We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”

Utah, where the church is based, is experiencing substantial or high levels of COVID transmission in nearly every county.

Contributing: The Associated Press; The Tallahassee Democrat; Liz Freeman, Naples Daily News; Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger

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