As national health officials brace for the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, hospitals in Tampa Bay are beefing up staffing levels and reviewing emergency protocols.
Florida has yet to see any reported cases of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. But local physicians are nevertheless preparing to diagnose and treat patients should the virus reach the Tampa Bay area. Some experts say the Sunshine State is uniquely prepared to handle a pandemic because of local officials’ experience with other public health threats in recent years, from hurricanes to managing the Zika virus.
“Hospitals in America are prepared for infection control, especially for airborne viruses like the coronavirus,” said Monica Hon, a vice president with Advis Healthcare Consulting, a national firm whose clients include Tampa Bay-based BayCare.
“Florida has been tested in other ways — maybe not a pandemic, but hospitals have learned lessons from hurricanes and other emergencies which follow the same kinds of protocols,” she said.
Hospitals across the region have already added to their staffing levels because it’s peak flu season, said Dr. Larry Feinman, the chief medical officer with HCA’s West Florida division. HCA operates eight hospitals in the area, including St. Petersburg General Hospital and the Medical Center of Trinity.
“I am sure we will be impacted by the coronavirus in the U.S.,” Feinman said. “But there are far more lethal diseases out there. It may be more dangerous than the flu, but it is much less lethal than previous epidemics we’ve experienced before like ebola, SARS or MERS.”
HCA said it is prepared for any mass public health threat, and will reply on its national network to deploy more resources and staff to areas that may be more affected, Feinman said.
The biggest concern for hospitals right now is the possible shortage of medical supplies. Many of the manufacturers of surgical masks, gloves and other equipment are based in China, and shipments have already been affected by the virus and quarantines in that country.
“But that kind of supply strain would be a nationwide problem,” Feinman said.
The coronavirus also has prompted discussions about the possibility of production slowdowns for drugs primarily supplied by China, said Donna Davis, a professor of marketing and supply chain management in the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida.
“The drugs that are used to fight infection, like streptomycin (and) amoxicillin, are primarily made in China,” she said. “I was reading up on this ... and the last time we produced penicillin in the United States was 2004.”
In some cases, she said, “while the drug itself might not be manufactured in China, the raw materials are produced in China.”
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HCA and BayCare hospitals are also using their telemedicine programs to help patients determine whether they need to come to a hospital at all during a time of high volume. It’s a tool that’s become increasingly more important, allowing doctors to diagnose symptoms early and keep some patients at home and out of the emergency room if they don’t need to be there, said Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer at BayCare.
“The best prevention is for a sick person to stay at home,” Anand said. “By doing that, you’re not infecting anyone else.”
A top concern for local hospitals would be how to handle a large volume of patients, Hon said.
“The biggest question for most hospitals is, how many patients can you safely treat?” she said. “Trauma centers will carry a lot more of the load than the community hospital in your neighborhood.”
Tampa General is the only Level One trauma center in the region. The hospital’s clinical teams are working closely with infection disease experts at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine to care for and protect patients in addition to working with the Florida Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said hospital spokesman Curtis Krueger.
“Tampa General’s highly trained clinical teams are prepared and following all protocols for patients,” Krueger said. The protocols recently were amended to alert staffers to ask about travel from China during their routine interviews with patients, he said.
Physicians in Florida are required to alert their local health departments if they treat any patients with suspected COVID-19. The CDC is handling all testing for the virus, said Kevin Watler, spokesman for the Hillsborough County health department.
So far, only three states have access to tests that can be performed on site, and Florida is not one of them.
When physicians suspect a coronavirus diagnosis, they collect “clinical specimens” from the upper and lower respiratory systems and serum and then send the sample off to be tested.
“Right now, the only people who are at risk are those who have traveled to China or have come into contact with people who have tested positive,” Feinman said. “If you or I developed a fever or respiratory issues without one of those indicators, there would be no reason to test or suspect the coronavirus.”
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg is working with its counterparts in Baltimore to monitor the situation, said spokesman Roy Adams.
“We have reviewed and updated our facility map to determine the best place to isolate and treat patients, should we get any patients presenting with symptoms,” he said.
AdventHealth and Bayfront Health hospital systems continue to monitor the situation as well, and are relying on guidance from the federal government.
“We currently hand out masks as part of protocol in flu season,” said Richelle Hoenes, spokeswomen with AdventHealth. “So someone with symptoms such as coughing would be given a mask under standard operating procedure.”
Paramedics also are preparing for the possible virus, at a time when activity is already high fur the busy flu season.
“We respond to many, many flu calls every year,” said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for Pinellas EMS. “We are taking the appropriate precautions with protective equipment in any infectious disease situation.”
Anand said one problem is the rampant spread of false information about the virus.
“We’re trying to minimize the misinformation that leads to panic and then more of a crisis situation,” he said. “People should remember there are no cases in Florida that we are aware of yet. Only time will tell.”
What you need to know about the coronavirus
Symptoms: fever, cough and shortness of breath.
People at higher risk: health care workers, laboratory workers, people who have traveled from China, Italy, South Korea and other areas.
Prevention: Wash hands, clean surfaces in the home and workplace, stay hydrated, eat a balanced diet and get adequate sleep.
Why there so many deaths: Fatalities are affecting mostly older people with compromised immune systems. A severe case of coronavirus can lead to pneumonia. Complications from pneumonia are the most common cause of death.