TALLAHASSEE — The federal Department of Health and Human Services has sent 200 ventilators and 100 high-flow nasal oxygen kits to Florida as hospitals deal with an unprecedented flood of COVID-19 patients.
The federal government said it shipped the equipment after receiving a request to do so from Florida. But as with many issues surrounding the pandemic these days, the request for the emergency materials was not without political drama. This week, the White House and the DeSantis administration had another brief back-and-forth about the coronavirus emergency.
On Tuesday, at a news conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis said he was unaware of the request for more materials, which was first reported by Local10 news.
“I would honestly doubt that that’s true, but I’ll look,” DeSantis said when asked about Florida hospitals needing more life-saving equipment. “We have a lot of stuff that we stockpiled over the last year and a half through the (Division) of Emergency Management. I’ve not had any requests that have crossed my desk.”
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the federal government had, in fact, sent supplies to Florida.
“As a policy, we don’t send ventilators to states without their interest in receiving the ventilators,” Psaki said. “Why would you oppose receiving ventilators when you clearly need those in your state given the percentage of hospitalizations occurring in Florida?”
On Twitter, DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw took exception to Psaki’s comments.
The dust-up between the DeSantis administration and the White House may have come down to a bureaucratic misunderstanding. Requests for additional emergency materials from the federal Strategic National Stockpile are not made through the governor’s office. They come through the Department of Health, which confirmed Wednesday that it had asked the federal government for more ventilators and high-flow oxygen devices.
The request was meant to replenish the state’s stockpile of emergency equipment, Department of Health spokesperson Weesam Khoury said in an interview.
“There is not a ventilator shortage,” Khoury said.
Hospitals say the same thing. A spokesperson for the Miami-based Jackson Health System, the largest public hospital chain in the state, said Tuesday that its facilities were well stocked. A spokesperson for Orlando Health, which manages more than a dozen emergency rooms in central Florida, said it had sufficient supplies.
Glenn Waters, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of BayCare Health System, which runs 15 hospitals in Tampa Bay and central Florida, said in an emailed statement his hospitals have what they need to serve patients.
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“However, we have seen the number of patients with COVID-19 increase ten-fold since the first week of July,” Waters cautioned. “With an increasing number of hospitalized patients, it is becoming increasingly difficult to shift resources within our system. As a precautionary measure, we have requested a limited amount of additional equipment in case it is needed to support additional patients needing respiratory assistance in the future.”
Justin Senior, the CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said Wednesday he had heard of no ventilator shortage from his member hospitals. His organization represents the hospitals in Florida that care for some of the state’s poorest and sickest patients. Among its members: UF Health Jacksonville and Ascension St. Vincent’s in Jacksonville, which have been at the epicenter of Florida’s hardest-hit region.
Still, Florida hospitals are warily watching as hospitals across the state fill with coronavirus patients. On Wednesday, the Florida Hospital Association reported more than 15,000 COVID hospitalizations — nearly 50 percent more than last July’s peak. According to the New York Times, Florida is hospitalizing people from COVID-19 at a far greater rate than any other state. Nearly half of the state’s intensive care patients have the virus.
Some facilities in the Jacksonville area are reporting that 50 percent of their patients are being treated for COVID-19, said Mary Mayhew, the president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
Mayhew, a former top state health official under DeSantis, said some hospitals are acquiring more ventilators to deal with the surge in very sick patients. But beyond patients who can’t breathe for themselves, Mayhew said there is an “unprecedented demand for high-flow oxygen” at hospitals in Florida.
Some facilities have so many patients requiring oxygen, they’re having trouble finding places to store it, Mayhew said.
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