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As Tampa Bay hospitals brace for coronavirus, here’s what you’ll face in the ER

Checkpoints, isolation wards and other steps are planned as cases surge. Hospitals urge patients to use telemedicine apps if they can.

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As the coronavirus continues to spread, Tampa Bay area hospitals are preparing for an anticipated surge in patients.

Signs on emergency room doors across the region urge visitors who don’t need to be there to go home. Some people are being turned away, especially if they’ve recently traveled to a country with a high number of coronavirus cases. At certain locations, staff wearing gloves are stationed outside hospital doors, questioning every visitor.

Those are just some of the measures in place as the region’s major hospital operators brace for the pandemic to worsen.

RELATED: Many local hospitals are banning child visitors because of coronavirus

At Tampa General Hospital, entrances have been closed off to funnel people through centralized areas, said CEO John Couris, one of several hospital leaders who spoke Thursday at a news conference hosted by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. The group also included executives from the AdventHealth, HCA and BayCare chains.

Tampa General Hospital CEO John D. Couris says the facility would institute "mass volume procedures" if a surge of coronavirus cases was to become too large. [Times (2017)]
Tampa General Hospital CEO John D. Couris says the facility would institute "mass volume procedures" if a surge of coronavirus cases was to become too large. [Times (2017)]

Tampa General, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center and a “safety net” facility for patients who need help with health care costs, also instituted a three-phase plan to handle a mass influx of patients in an emergency. That would include creating an entire isolation wing, where coronavirus patients would be admitted and treated in one location. The hospital also would set up an outdoor overflow area for ambulatory services adjacent to the emergency room.

“If we get a rush of patients who meet the criteria to be tested, and we get a surge of those patients in the ER and can’t handle the volume, we have mass volume procedures,” Couris said. “We’re prepared for all phases of a surge situation.”

The hospital is equipped with 81 negative pressure isolation rooms and more than 100 respirators, he said.

Patients who come in with possible coronavirus symptoms are immediately given a mask, said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an infectious disease physician at Tampa General.

“Then they’re directed to an area where a dedicated ER physician and an infectious disease doctor with a specialty in understanding viral infections will help address their concerns,” she said. “If the doctors believe the patient will benefit from testing, the patient is isolated and samples are taken for testing.”

Symptoms of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, include fever, shortness of breath, a dry cough and sometimes a sore throat.

“COVID-19 likes to attack to the lungs and the GI tract. Some patients experience diarrhea, but that’s only in less than 10 percent of cases," Lakshmi said.

She recommends that everyone stay current on vaccines, including the annual flu shot and the pneumonia vaccine, PPSV23, which could lessen symptoms in coronavirus cases.

As the number of cases rises and delays for more testing kits continue, area hospitals are just now beginning to test patients in-house for coronavirus. Couris said Tampa General is getting set up with the tests, which also are available at BayCare, AdventHealth and HCA hospitals in the region. All testing is done in coordination with local health departments.

Dr. Douglas Holt, medical director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, described testing as “a challenge."

“There are sufficient tests for the current criteria. Looking forward, it’s how do we expand the access,” he said Thursday. “That’s the priority. The more tests that are coming in, the slower the response. But generally, we are seeing test results within 24 hours.”

Patients with possible coronavirus exposure should still contact their local health department first, Castor said. But local hospitals are prepared to answer questions and treat patients over telemedicine apps too, said Dr. Peter Charvat, chief medical officer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.

AdventHealth has also opened its 24-hour hotline staffed by nurses who can answer general questions about the outbreak. The number is (877) 847-8747.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

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FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

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