TALLAHASSEE — Florida hospitals want to start performing elective surgeries when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order prohibiting them expires in two weeks, they told a task force on Thursday.
The hospitals statewide have lost an estimated $400 to $500 million in revenue as they set aside beds for COVID-19 cases that haven’t materialized. Each COVID-19 patient costs hospitals an estimated $6,000 to $8,000, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration.
Bringing back elective surgeries, which are lucrative procedures for hospitals, could help pad their bottom lines. Elective surgeries, such as knee replacements or kidney stone removals, are procedures that can be scheduled in advance, but that doesn’t mean they are optional or unnecessary.
“The pandemic has had a major impact on finances of institutions like Tampa General,” said John Couris, the hospital’s president and CEO. “It is not sustainable for the obvious reasons.”
DeSantis’ order is set to expire May 8. He already said he favors lifting the ban. Couris and other hospital executives said they should be allowed to perform elective procedures on May 9, with some precautions. Anyone needing an elective procedure should have to take a COVID-19 test 48 hours before the surgery, with fever checks and questioning on the day of the operation.
Hospitals might have to use beds and equipment currently set aside for potential COVID-19 patients. Couris said hospitals should still be prepared for a surge by being required to keep enough personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, on hand for at least 15 days, and ideally 30 days.
“(Personal protective equipment) is becoming more available, but it’s still difficult to get,” Couris said.
Couris’ comments came on the next-to-last day of task force meetings DeSantis created to help him decide how to reopen the state.
Or at least, it was initially scheduled to be the next-to-last day. DeSantis gave the task force members a Friday deadline to produce recommendations. But Shane Strum, DeSantis’ chief of staff, told task force members Thursday that they will finish the recommendations “early next week.”
So far, task force members, mostly corporate CEOs and state and local lawmakers, have been looking to the state for guidance on how to safely reopen.
On Thursday, the Department of Health told task force members to refer to the White House’s guidelines for reopening America, but those aren’t much clearer.
The guidelines say states should reopen in three phases. The first phase would allow restaurants, churches, sporting events, movie theaters and gyms to open up, but only with strict social distancing. Most people would still be asked to work from home if possible. Bars and schools would remain closed, and people would still obey social distancing, including avoiding crowds of 10 or more.
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But the first phase should only be allowed if states see 14 days of both falling numbers of COVID-19 cases and falling cases of flu-like illnesses, a statistic that is considered an early indicator of COVID-19. Unlike other states, Florida stopped publicly reporting flu-like illnesses earlier this month, but one Department of Health report says those cases rose last week.
Phase two would allow crowds of up to 50 people and bars would reopen with limited capacity. Phase three would be a return to normal.
As Florida aims toward returning to business as usual, two key educational aspects will play a critical role, members of the Reopen Florida task force on education said Thursday.
Preschools — more than half of which have closed — must resume operations, and state colleges need to figure out best ways to retrain a displaced workforce.
Both ends of the academic spectrum are key, officials said, especially in the hardest hit communities where service gaps have been highlighted as the state adjusted to a distance model for work and learning.
“If we’re going to open up our economy, child care plays a vital role,” education department senior chancellor Eric Hall said.
But the return to any semblance of business as usual could prove difficult. Many centers closed because they had few paying clients. Many families might no longer be able to afford the service.
Evilio Torres, chairman of the Miami-Dade Early Learning Coalition, suggested that the state should consider pouring added support into centers, particularly in low-income communities where the need is high for both helping parents and ensuring that children are better prepared for elementary school.
“It’s going to be critical,” Torres said.
Equally important will be the role of community colleges, which often see upticks in interest when the economy takes a downturn.
The colleges will be looking for ways to help students, both current and future, who might not be able to afford the tuition and fees at a time when they need the available training the most, said Greg Haile, Broward College president.
That will mean finding ways to overcome the barriers of time, transportation and technology that might hinder students from enrolling, he said.
“We have to find a way to meet those needs,” Haile said.
At the same time, the colleges will consult with employers to ensure they provide the programs that lead to jobs in the new-look economy. And, they’ll be helping recent high school graduates who might not have gotten all the needed instruction in courses cut short by distance learning in the final quarter.
The committee discussed concerns for K-12 schools and universities a day earlier. It was instructed to prepare a formal list of recommendations by Friday.
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