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'Florida is getting hit the worst of all': Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks one-on-one with First Coast News about COVID-19

NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci talks about the rising COVID numbers on the First Coast, mask mandates and the pandemic overall.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — One of the leading and most recognized healthcare experts in the country sat down with First Coast News' Kailey Tracy Friday to discuss the spike in COVID-19 cases nationally and on the First Coast.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Florida is a hotbed of new COVID-19 activity.

"When the people of Florida are there trying to protect themselves and their family and they look at the 50 states in the United States, that Florida is getting hit the worst of all, this is a public health issue," Fauci said.

"I can't say that any more emphatically. I don't care at all about anybody's ideology. The virus doesn't care whether you're a Democrat or Republican, an Independent, doesn't care what your Libertarian needs are whatever it is, the virus will find vulnerable people will infect them will make a certain proportion of them sick and will kill a certain proportion of them," he said.

Fauci said the best way to counter the rising COVID cases on the First Coast is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. The next way to fight the virus, he said, is mitigation.

"We don't want to lock down. That's something we don't want to go there. We know how terrible that is when it comes to the impact on everyone, including the economy. And we certainly want to get the children back to school because we know what the negative impact is on children when you keep them out of school and have them learn only virtually both on their mental health and developmental health, etc.," he said.

"You've got to take care of and protect the health of everyone, including the children, one of the easiest ways to do that is by wearing a mask," Fauci said.

First Coast News asked Fauci if it were up to him, if he would mandate masks in Jacksonville.

"I believe that anything that one can do to get the public to wear masks to protect their health, the health of their family, and the health of the community, is to wear a mask. And if that means mandating masks at the local level, I think that that's important to do," Fauci said. "I know there's been some controversy about that, but that's unfortunate because those kinds of controversies should be put aside," he said.

Locally, Baptist Health said it has created Care Expansion Units with more than 100 beds at Baptist Beaches and Baptist South to care for "an increased number of COVID-19 patients." The areas used to be "shell spaces" with windows, air conditioning, bathrooms, but no interior improvements or finishes. 

"While this is not aesthetically appealing, the clinical care provided is excellent given our experience and commitment to making room to care for all patients in need," Baptist said.

Friday, Baptist reported 560 COVID patients system-wide, with 102 patients in the ICU. Twelve of the 560 are pediatric patients, and of those 12, three are in the ICU. Thursday, 84 new COVID patients were admitted, three being children. More than 90 percent of the COVID patients 12 and older are not fully vaccinated, Baptist said.

UF Health Jacksonville Friday had 240 COVID patients with 52 in the ICU.

First Coast News gave Dr. Fauci the local numbers and status of hospitals.

“Those numbers are very disturbing to me as a public health person, but even particularly as a physician who still takes care of patients, to see the people of Florida suffering so terribly, I mean, this is an extraordinary virus that is a very formidable enemy. The virus is the enemy.”

First Coast News also asked Fauci about Governor Ron DeSantis' executive order signed last week preventing mask mandate for students.

"I do not want to get into the politics of Florida. I mean, it's obvious how the Florida governor feels about me with his T-shirts and his beer mugs. So, I don't want to get into that," he said. "I just want to speak apolitically as a pure public health person without any political leanings at all, is that I would advise the people of Florida to do whatever you can to safeguard that the health and the safety of yourselves and your children," he said.

"If that means, you know, going the extra mile to push to get what you need to do to protect them, I would go ahead and do that. We're not talking about political statements now. We're talking about the health of you, your family, particularly your children. That should supersede any other consideration that you have," he said.

Fauci said the best way to protect students this school year and get them back in schools is by wearing masks.

"That's one of the reasons why the CDC comes with the recommendation that even though people might be vaccinated or not, if you want to get the kids back to school, they should be wearing a mask," he said.

Earlier this week, an official with the Florida Hospital Association called Jacksonville the epicenter of the pandemic for the state of Florida. Fauci said he sees it in the same way when asked.

"I think you called it correctly. It is really unfortunate that you have two states, Florida and Texas accounting for something like 40 percent of the infections. That's so tragic," Fauci said.

Friday, according to the Florida Department of Health, Duval County's positivity rate for the week of July 30 to Aug. 5 was 25.4 percent. This is down slightly from 26.9 percent the week before. There were 8,143 new cases of COVID, down from 8,308 the week before. The good news is 16,233 people were vaccinated up from 15,583 the previous week, and 9,613 the week before that. 

The positivity rate across Florida for the week of July 30 to Aug. 5, according to the Florida DOH, was 18.9 percent. There were 175 new deaths and 134,506 new cases. Statewide 290,769 people were vaccinated, with 278,375 of them getting their first dose.

Friday was the sixth day in a row that Florida broke its daily COVID hospitalization record with 12,864 people hospitalized. 

"Then you have Florida accounting for I believe the last count was almost 20 some odd percent. Just think of that. I mean, when the people of Florida are they're trying to protect themselves and their family and they look at the 50 states in the United States that Florida is getting hit the worst of all, this is a public health issue," he said. 

"Florida is in a very, very difficult position. How can you be living in Florida look around and see that of all the states in the union, you're suffering the most? That is terrible. And really, we need to do everything we can for the citizens of Florida. We don't want to see the citizens of Florida, getting ill, going to the hospital and certainly not dying. So, we need to do everything we possibly can to help them," Fauci said.

He said if we don't control the virus now, it will mutate further.

“This will be bad, not only for the people of Florida, it will be bad for the rest of the country. Because if you get a variant that evolves from a place that has a poor control of the virus, sooner or later, as we've seen, absolutely as sure as the sun rises and sets, that when you get a variant in one place, ultimately, it's going to spread throughout the country. We saw that with the Delta variant," Fauci said.

Fauci also had a message for health care workers on the First Coast. 

"I think the Florida health care workers, similar to the health care workers throughout the country, in my mind are the real heroes and heroines of this. It is tough enough. I know. I've been there in the trenches, particularly during the years of HIV AIDS," he said.

"I just want to encourage them, that we understand it, that you are our heroes, you are our heroines. You're being put in a difficult position because there are elements in your state that are preventing you from doing the things that you really want to do, and that's really unfortunate," he said.

"I repeat what I said before, this is a public health issue. It's not a political issue. We've got to do everything we possibly can to safeguard the health of our population and the health of our health care workers who are under considerable stress and strain to do the heroic jobs that they are doing," Fauci said.

When asked if he thinks the vaccine should be mandated for health care workers, Fauci said he's in favor of a vaccine mandate for them.

"This is nothing new. I'm a practicing physician in my hospital here in Bethesda. If I want to go on a ward to take care of the patient, I must get vaccinated with influenza and hepatitis. Otherwise, I can't see the patient," he said.

"So, this isn't something new that was cooked up in some political atmosphere. This has been going on for many, many years, that health care providers have a responsibility to safeguard the health of the people that they're dealing with. And you do that by making sure you don't walk into someone's room and give them an infection. That's the reason why you have those mandates," Fauci said.

"So, it isn't unique to COVID-19, and I think people need to realize that when they hear about mandating healthcare providers to get vaccinated, it's not something new that originated with COVID-19," he said.

As for his advice for the people of the First Coast, as we fight this latest surge, Fauci said "hang in there."

"Do the best you can. Just do everything you can to protect yourself and your family. Follow the CDC guidelines. Do the things that we're talking about. Wear a mask even if you're vaccinated when you're in a public indoor place. Get the children to be protected in schools by getting them to wear masks," he said.

"I know it is not the most comfortable thing in the world, but I'd rather be a little bit uncomfortable and well, than comfortable and then wind up in an ICU," Fauci said.