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Tampa Bay area doctors seeing more routine appointments, but remain cautious

While some private practices are opening their doors to more patients, others are continuing with telemedicine and other exposure precautions.

For allergist Dr. Mona Mangat, the coronavirus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Florida reported its first two cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in early March, which coincided with the onset of allergy season.

“It’s been pretty awful,” said Mangat, who operates Bay Area Allergy and Asthma in St. Petersburg. “The timing is especially bad for us. It’s allergy season and people are miserable and just want to get treated.”

Doctor and dentist offices are among the many businesses slowly reopening their practices to Florida residents this week under loosening COVID-19 restrictions. But many private practices are moving slower than restaurants or retail businesses, maintaining the coronavirus-era precautions.

“We’re taking it pretty slow just to see how things go,” Mangat said. “I’m pretty concerned that we’re not seeing a significant decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases yet. And we’re probably being more cautious than a lot of other offices just to make sure we have everything in place and that it’s safe.”

Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley saw the number of appointments drop by 50 percent in March and April at her Kids First Pediatric Care clinic in Lithia. While business has been picking back up, Richards-Rowley said that the parents of her young patients are still cautious about coming in.

“We changed how we were seeing patients. We had well visits in the morning and sick in the afternoon, even though we’ve seen very few sick visits lately because children are out of school and daycare, so they’re not getting each other sick,” she said.

Related: Also on the virus front lines: Primary and urgent care doctors

Other precautions include having her staff wear masks and gloves, and encouraging patients to do the same, and deep cleaning the office several times a day.

Richards-Rowley said the COVID-19 exposure in Lithia has been minimal, but her office still refers patients with symptoms to the emergency room.

“We don’t see the sickest patients in our office to protect our staff and other patients,” she said. “We’ve been using telehealth for some appointments, like rashes or anxiety or ADHD follow-ups. It’s been very well received.”

Richards-Rowley said it’s “too early” to tell if her patients will be more comfortable about coming in to the office now that the governor has started to reopen some parts of the state. But she said that routine pediatric care is still so important.

“We’ve been trying to pivot to still be there for our patients,” she said. “We know that nationally, vaccination rates have decreased, and the last thing we need is a measles outbreak in the face of COVID-19.”

Dr. Brett Levine, family medicine physician at LevMed Health in St. Petersburg, is still relying heavily on telemedicine as a replacement for in-person exams when it makes sense.

“For in-person patients or newly established patients, we are contacting them the day of and making sure they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms,” said Levine. “We are also spreading out appointments so there is no overlap or potential for spread between patients.”

At Bayfront Health, which operates the Level 2 trauma center in St. Petersburg but also a network of primary care and specialty practices, doctors are just getting back to work this week.

Employees and patients will still be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before appointments, but telemedicine is encouraged, said Dr. Craig Levoy, the regional medical director for Bayfront Medical Group.

Related: Elective surgeries to resume after thousands were postponed in Tampa Bay

“We’re trying to do a more dialed approach rather than a light-switch approach,” he said. “Patients shouldn’t bring visitors with them to appointments, but if they must, they should be masked and will be limited to only one person.”

An executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis expired this week, allowing for hospitals and other medical professionals to return to elective procedures. That included dental work, said Dr. Rudy Liddell, a dentist with Brandon Dental Care and the president of the Florida Dental Association.

This is the first week his practice has returned to offering elective procedures, he said.

“It felt good to get back to work, if I’m being honest with you,” Liddell said. “I think our patients have come to realize that it’s much safer to come to a dental office than it is to go to a Walmart right now.”

Dentists weren’t included in the federal government’s list of essential providers, which made for a challenging two-month period, Liddell said.

“I would call up my dental supply company to order N95 masks, but they weren’t allowed to sell them to me,” he said. “That’s been the biggest and consistent challenge, trying to get adequate supplies.”

For Mangat, her allergy practice will continue with telehealth appointments this week and open for in-person appointments next week, she said.

“Only patients who are new or need testing will come in,” she said. “We’re scheduling an hour between each patient, and everyone waits in their car. Patients have to wear masks and have their temperature taken at the door. All paperwork will be done beforehand and payment will be done electronically.”

Mangat said telemedicine has helped her keep in touch with her patients, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been good to offer this service to provide some comfort to our patients,” she said. “But there’s only so much you can do without listening to someone’s lungs as an allergy doctor.”

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