SWFL hospitals could face lack of doctors, nurses as COVID-19 cases surge

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 across the state has doubled since September, and the president of the Florida Hospital Association says the biggest problem isn’t a lack of beds, but could become a lack of doctors and nurses.

“A month ago, we had about 90 patients with COVID,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, Lee Health president and CEO.

Lee Health had 147 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Wednesday, but Antonucci says these numbers are stable – for now.

“We just have to wait and see what happens now after Thanksgiving and heading into the holiday season,” he said.

“We can flex up as we need to, and we can convert what are normally used as regular hospital beds into ICU beds.”

If the post-holiday surge runs too high, Southwest Florida could face another critical shortage: hospital staff.

“Even with bed availability – what this area has been challenged with, as with other areas around the state, is access to staff. Making sure that we have CNAs, and nurses, and physicians, and respiratory therapists,” said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.

Mayhew was in town on Wednesday to meet with Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System about getting through the next phase of the pandemic, including bed availability concerns and vaccine preparations.

She says that hospitals can lean on traveling nurses, cross-train their current staff and ask the state for help.

“If we experience similar workforce challenges, then the state will be looking at ways to leverage any of those contracted staff resources to support our hospitals,” she said.

“I know during the summer surge, a number of hospitals used that service. We didn’t have to do that,” Antonucci said.

Whether Lee Health needs to this time is up to us.

“Please continue to social distance, continue to wear a mask, and hand wash,” Antonucci said.

NCH as of Wednesday was currently treating 63 patients in-house who tested positive for COVID-19.

On the vaccine front, Southwest Florida hospitals won’t be any of the first in our state to receive the coronavirus vaccine, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have fast access to it.

On Dec. 10, all eyes will be on the Food and Drug Administration and Pfizer as the first vaccine could rollout in parts of Florida – just not here.

“The initial dosage is to the five main population centers of the state,” Antonucci said.

“The federal government asked the state to identify initially five hospitals just for the purposes of evaluating the logistics around that initial distribution,” Mayhew said.

She said the decision has nothing to do with our capabilities. Instead, those five hospitals are a beta test. When it’s our turn, expect smooth sailing.

“We’re talking a matter of weeks here in December where we should see vaccine broadly distributed in this area,” Mayhew said.

“We’ve got capability with both utilizing dry ice to maintain the Pfizer vaccine at -80 degrees. And also, we have the delivery of special freezers that are coming within the next few weeks also,” Antonucci said.

He also said we could see the Moderna vaccine by the end of the month as well.

Getting the vaccines here is only part of the challenge. Mayhew says we have to encourage people to take it, and the best way to do that is by health care leaders paving the way.

When asked if he would take the vaccine, Antonucci said he has complete confidence in the process and he’ll get it as soon as he can.

Reporter:Veronica Marshall
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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