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Tampa Bay hospitals remain wary of visitors as coronavirus cases rise

Some are easing visitation rules, citing the toll of keeping patients and families apart. But others say it's not time yet.
BayCare hospitals like St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg have scrapped plans to relax visiting rules after recent increases in the number of COVID-19 cases. Others are easing rules while still remaining wary of the virus.
BayCare hospitals like St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg have scrapped plans to relax visiting rules after recent increases in the number of COVID-19 cases. Others are easing rules while still remaining wary of the virus. [ Times (2012) ]
Published Jun. 18, 2020
Updated Jun. 18, 2020

BayCare hospitals were all set to reopen to visitors last week. Doctors were ready to let patients reunite with their loved ones, and confident they could do so without risking spread of the coronavirus.

But then came a spike in COVID-19 cases over the weekend, both locally and statewide. Florida reported its largest single-day increase in infections Tuesday, and Hillsborough County broke the same record Wednesday.

So BayCare scrapped its plan to let visitors back inside its facilities. It’s not safe yet to open hospitals to general public, said Glenn Waters, chief operating officer of BayCare Health System, which operates 15 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region. “We are going to err on the side of caution and safety.”

Hospitals in Tampa Bay are handling visitation in various ways as local doctors anticipate a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the state, and as Florida reopens businesses like restaurants, theme parks, salons and malls.

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis on climbing coronavirus case numbers: "We're not rolling back."

Most are keeping strict rules in place for visitors, allowing them inside only under certain circumstances, like when a patient is dying or delivering a baby, for example. Others, like St. Petersburg General Hospital, part of the HCA Healthcare system, are relaxing visitation rules put in place when the pandemic began.

All patients at HCA locations, besides those diagnosed with COVID-19, are allowed one visitor each as of June 10, so long as the visitor is at least 18, passes an aggressive screening process and wears a mask at all times, said Larry Feinman, chief medical officer for the system’s West Florida division. Children and mothers in labor and delivery are allowed two.

“We feel we can tolerate the additional people in the hospital safely,” Feinman said, contending that medical facilities might be safer than the outside world, at places like supermarkets, where people aren’t always required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

AdventHealth, which operates six hospitals throughout Tampa Bay, also is allowing all patients one visitor each, said spokeswoman Ashley Jeffery. Other hospitals, like Tampa General and those in the Bayfront Health system, are taking a more measured approach.

Tampa General is closed to visitors, other than those 18 and older who are coming to see patients in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care units, as well as partners of those in labor and delivery.

Still, those visitors must stay at their loved one’s bedside during the visit, the hospital said. They are required to answer screening questions, wear a mask at all times and provide a photo ID that will be used to create a pass visitors must wear.

Similar protocols are are in place at Bayfront Health hospitals in St. Petersburg, Brooksville and Spring Hill. Emergency room patients can have visitors only in “extraordinary circumstances,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Siem.

Waters, the chief operating officer of BayCare, said it’s been difficult for hospital staff to turn visitors away. Some patients are scared without their family there. One woman in her 70s got out of her bed and left because her husband couldn’t stay with her, he said.

Feinman, the HCA executive, called limiting visitation “heart-wrenching.” After many conversations among executives, relaxing the rules a bit felt like the right move, he said. What’s in place now is nowhere near the normal visitation policy, which allowed 24-hour, nearly unfettered access.

“As much effort as we put into thinking them through, we certainly could backtrack and go back to another policy if we see that the visitor policy is causing any problems,” Feinman said. “I would not hesitate to go back if we had to. ... It was extremely painful to us and our patients, but safety comes first.”

Dr. Andrew Myers, director of COVID-19 care at Tampa General and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said it’s imperative his hospital keeps strong limits on visitation as the coronavirus spreads.

Tampa General runs a transplant program and treats patients whose immune systems are suppressed and therefore at higher risk for contracting the disease. It’s on hospital leadership to give people the “best change to survive,” Myers said.

“Every person that comes in that doesn’t need to be here is a new possibility that someone could bring in COVID-19,” he said. “We have to balance the patients in the hospital who would benefit from seeing loved ones … and the possibility that someone comes in and is contagious.”

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