JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — With the state's Covid-19 cases roughly doubling each week, Florida has become one of the country's biggest hot spots for the latest surge fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, as well as vaccine skepticism.
UF Health in Jacksonville said it broke its record for most hospitalized Covid patients Monday. At the start of Sunday, the hospital had 86. At one point Monday, the number reached 126, an increase of more than 40 percent in just one day.
"I saw it when it was crazy in January," nurse Sabrina Oetterer said. "And I thought for a while we saw the light at the end of the tunnel with only one Covid-positive patient. And now, there hasn't even been enough time to realize that we're back to where we started."
Florida accounts for a fifth of new infections nationwide.
"We're gaining cases at such a rapid rate we don't really know where it's going to stop," said Chad Neilsen, the hospital's director of infection prevention. "We aren't even thinking a couple of months. We're thinking what's going to immediately happen in the next week."
Statewide hospitalizations and deaths are still far short of where they were in January before the vaccines were widely available. But nurses at UF Health say that their shifts are busier — and that they're seeing younger and sicker patients.
"That is insane," nurse Lauren Schiller said. "It was just insane to go from having one Covid patient to having all Covid patients again."
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign team last week began selling "Don't Fauci My Florida" merchandise — a reference to long-held skepticism of mask mandates and other Covid restrictions. Still, DeSantis is encouraging people to get vaccinated, saying about 85 percent of seniors in the state have done so.
But then there are people like Debra Wells, 65, whom NBC News spoke with at UF Health. She had been inside the Covid unit for three days. She struggled to breathe — but said she felt 100 percent better since Saturday.
Wells said she had not gotten vaccinated because she was scared.
"I regret it," she said. "I felt like I was dying. I couldn't do nothing for myself. Nothing. It's a very miserable feeling. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It's horrible."