Tampa Bay area hospitals are preparing to resume normal surgery schedules starting next week after postponing thousands of procedures during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that hospitals will be able to restart all elective procedures and non-life threatening surgeries on Monday after putting them on hold to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients.
His March 20 order temporarily ending those services put a financial strain on hospitals across the state, resulting in furloughs and layoffs of some specialized health care workers. It also left patients with medical issues in limbo for weeks.
“On an annual basis, we do more than 60,000 surgeries and procedures. In two months, we’ve postponed thousands. It’s gigantic,” said John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, which did not lay off or furlough workers.
Doctors had to get creative to keep patients with non-critical medical issues comfortable during this time. For example, some mild appendicitis patients at AdventHealth hospitals were treated with antibiotics instead of the traditional surgery, said Dr. Doug Ross, chief medical officer at AdventHealth Tampa hospital.
“We had to reduce the strain on the (operating room) and we didn’t want to put any patient at risk,” he said. “We still performed urgent and emergent procedures, and we trusted the doctors to make the right decision. If they said a patient needed to go in, then they needed to go in.”
The AdventHealth Tampa hospital alone had to postpone and reschedule more than 2,000 surgeries in March and April due to DeSantis’ order, Ross said.
During those six weeks, Tampa Bay never saw a coronavirus surge that overwhelmed the health system. Hospital bed space continues be plentiful even as the outbreak continues.
While most other hospitals in the area will resume elective procedures on Monday, AdventHealth hospitals will wait until May 11.
“We believe that patient safety is more important than business gains,” Ross said. “We need to prepare and ensure that this is the safest environment possible for our patients. We owe it to our community to do that.”
Over the next week, AdventHealth will begin repositioning physicians and nurses who were pulled from their regular surgery duties during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak and rescheduling them back in the operating room, Ross said. Physicians are also reviewing which patients to bring in for surgery first based on critical need and risk.
“We want to phase it in,” he said.
AdventHealth hospitals are also redesigning emergency room waiting areas to encourage social distancing, testing all incoming patients for COVID-19 as of May 11, and are in the process of testing the system’s 6,000 health care workers, Ross said.
Tampa General Hospital will resume elective procedures on Monday, said Couris, who also serves on DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida task force. He said the hospital has been preparing for weeks to make this change.
“People are scared and worried, but they have to understand that every hospital is working hard to keep facilities safe and clean,” Couris said. "People should feel comfortable that if they need care, they can get care.”
Tampa General has begun testing all patients in the hospital for COVID-19 and will continue to do so. Staff members are undergoing antibody testing, too, a process that can show whether a person has previously been infected with the virus. The hospital has also significantly ramped up its cleaning protocols, which include UV light scans.
Nearly all hospitals in the region are still limiting visitors, except those visiting women in labor and child patients.
BayCare Health System will also resume elective procedures on Monday. All surgical patients will be tested for COVID-19. And to encourage social distancing, hospitals and outpatient surgical centers will allow patients to check in on smart phones so they can wait in their cars until a room is ready, according to the company.
“We know COVID-19 is not the only health issue that needs attention in our community,” Baycare’s chief medical officer, Dr. Nishant Anand, said in a statement.
The Florida Medical Association praised the governor for opening elective surgery after the group’s president wrote a letter last week pleading for DeSantis to do so.
Association president Dr. Ronald Giffler said in a statement that patients have had to delay treatments for a number of ailments, including chronic kidney disease, certain cancers, conditions requiring cardiac bypass, congestive heart failure and joint problems causing chronic pain.
"While the state has understandably focused on the immediate needs of fighting COVID-19, it is imperative that we not ignore a potential second crisis: a wave of emergencies and fatalities among the people delaying care or going untreated,” Giffler said.
Lori Werner, a Safety Harbor resident, had a bunion surgery scheduled in March that was postponed three days before it was supposed to happen.
“I got an email from the office saying that elective procedures weren’t canceled. Then on the next Tuesday they called to go over the details of my surgery that was scheduled for that Friday,” Werner said. “But she called me back and said it was canceled.”
Werner hasn’t heard from her podiatrist since DeSantis announced his plans to slowly reopen the state.
“My foot is not an emergency like a hip or a knee,” she said. “I will probably wait a few months. I’m not in pain.”
Hospitals aren’t the only centers where elective procedures are returning. A survey by the American Dental Association showed that more than 82 percent of Florida dentists continued to see emergency patients but postponed elective procedures.
Dentists will be able to resume regular procedures beginning May 4.
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