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Inside a Florida hospital, coronavirus cases wane as strained staff brace for a fall surge

This is what a lull looks like.

Florida was a hot spot of the coronavirus pandemic this summer. More than 722,000 Floridians have so far been infected with the virus — with a daily high of more than 15,000 cases reported July 12. The state’s intensive care units, including those at Tampa General, were pushed to the brink as the virus spread out of control. The spike came weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) quickly reopened much of the state, casting it as a return to normalcy.

By late August, when The Washington Post visited Tampa General, cases statewide had sharply declined, and treating 22 critically ill patients was a reprieve of sorts for the hospital’s staff. The downstairs garage that was transformed into a spillover triage unit during the surge was empty, and a few beds were open in the ICU. Take your vacations now, hospital executives urged doctors and nurses. The break was not expected to last.

Tampa General could serve as a case study for hospitals across the country that have been tested by the coronavirus. Like others, the hospital is bracing for another likely surge now that students and staff are back in school. Flu season is on the horizon. No one knows what hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30, will bring. And state rules to help curb the virus have ended.

DeSantis lifted statewide virus restrictions Sept. 25, a day when more than 2,800 Floridians were diagnosed with the coronavirus and 122 deaths were recorded. In an executive order, the governor, a close ally of President Trump, allowed bars and restaurants to operate at full capacity and suspended the collection of virus-related fines and penalties, such as those against people who are not wearing masks. DeSantis mused that week about establishing a “bill of rights” of sort to protect college students from facing punishment for violating campus social distancing orders. Hundreds have tested positive on Florida campuses, many after attending massive parties.

“That’s what college kids do,” DeSantis said of partying students.

Some local governments — including Tampa — said mask mandates are still in place.

In the meantime, doctors here and elsewhere are still mystified by so much about the disease: How many of the coronavirus patients who survive intensive care will suffer long-term health effects? Why do some patients deteriorate so quickly, while others with seemingly identical health profiles fare well? These questions still vastly outnumber those that can be answered with certainty.

Morale ebbs as staffers face the relentless task of confronting a disease that has dramatically upended their lives inside and outside the hospital. In both places, staff battle pervasive misinformation about the virus and distrust of the medical system, even from some of the sickest patients. Large numbers of health-care workers are falling ill — at least 420 Tampa General staffers have tested positive for the virus since March, though it is unclear where they contracted it.

“It’s an absolute grind. It’s a grind on people physically. It’s a grind