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A coronavirus surge is hitting Tampa Bay hospitals

Extra nurses and added morgue equipment have been brought in. “I don’t know how long we can sustain these high numbers,” one doctor said.

Hospitals in Tampa Bay have been bracing for months, anticipating a wave of coronavirus cases that is now beginning to reach them.

Hundreds of nurses have been brought in from elsewhere to help. And one area hospital system, BayCare, ordered refrigeration equipment to provide additional morgue space.

Doctors say their hospitals are constantly expanding bed space, but it fills up fast. Patients are younger and sicker than a few months ago, and there are simply more of them, said Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency room physician at Tampa General, the area’s largest hospital.

In March, April and May, the hospital saw about 15 patients infected with the virus each day. Now, there are often 70 or more, and about 40 percent end up in the intensive care unit, Wilson said. About half are placed on a ventilator.

Wilson also said a larger percentage of younger patients are becoming severely ill. About 40 percent of those admitted to Tampa General with the disease are younger than 55, he said.

Florida reported 156 new deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, the most in a single day. Seventy-two came from the Tampa Bay area, also a record, with 40 out of Hillsborough County. Hospitalizations also hit a record high with 495 new admissions statewide.

Of the 9,683 hospital beds in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Manatee and Citrus counties, 2,155 were available as of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, according to data collected by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

Related: Tampa Bay hospitals brace for a possible surge in patients

Available space changes all the time, as does the configuration of hospitals, said Dr. Robin McGuinness, senior executive over patient outcomes for AdventHealth, which operates six hospitals in Tampa Bay. New spaces can be opened if needed, and patients can be moved between facilities to balance workload.

The problem is that there is only so much stretching the health care system can do, Wilson said. “I don’t know how long we can sustain these high numbers.”

Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director of Pinellas emergency services and an emergency department doctor at Tampa General, shared a similar message with county commissioners Thursday. He said the number of people hospitalized in Pinellas is higher than than ever, and nurses and doctors are tired after months of working through the pandemic.

“You should know that your hospitals are stressed and strained, and so are your health care workers,” he told commissioners. “Whatever you think about the various testing numbers, I want to be sure that people understand that the hospitals are seeing the real impact of this.”

The three largest hospital systems in Tampa Bay — AdventHealth, BayCare and HCA Healthcare — have enlisted the help of temporary travel nurses to ease some of the burden on hospital staff. More than 200 have been recruited by HCA, with most landing at hospitals in Pinellas, where the company sees cases surging most, said Dr. Ravi Chari, president of HCA’s West Florida division.

BayCare also has recruited about 200 nurses. AdventHealth did not provide the number hired at its hospitals, but said each has some temporary nurses in place and that more have been requested.

BayCare took another step to prepare for more patients: Bringing in additional refrigeration supplies in case existing morgues need to be expanded. Other hospital systems say they stand ready to do the same but have not yet.

Since early June, BayCare’s 15 hospitals in and around Tampa Bay have seen a three-fold increase in COVID-19 patients, said chief medical officer Dr. Nishant Anand. The biggest increase has been in Hillsborough, but all the company’s hospitals have felt the surge — and Anand expects numbers to keep rising.

Bayfront Health St. Petersburg was caring for 47 COVID-19 patients on Thursday, including 12 who are in the ICU, the hospital said in a statement.

With the number of COVID-19 patients rising there over the last month, the hospital recently opened an additional ICU unit and is prepared to convert another area for additional patients as needed, the statement said.

Bayfront Health also said more nurses have been brought in to help.

Still, no hospitals in the Tampa Bay area have had to open off-campus auxiliary space. Instead, facilities have been reorganized to accommodate the influx of patients. At Tampa General, for example, unused spaces have been converted into new COVID-19 units, said Wilson, the emergency department doctor.

New heating and air conditioning systems, as well as devices that control air pollution, have been installed to ensure COVID-19 patients don’t share air with others who do not have the disease. The changes have been adequate so far, Wilson said, but “the whole world changed in June” when the hospital started seeing more patients with the virus.

Those with less critical symptoms were sent home with medical devices to monitor their vital signs and report back to a doctor virtually, freeing up space for others. But over time, more patients in need of intensive care have started showing up — including those who came to the hospital for other reasons but ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

Keeping pressure off the region’s hospitals will take investment by the entire community, said McGuinness, the AdventHealth executive. Residents should continue to social distance and wear masks to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Hospitals are ready to respond, but they have limits, Wilson added.

“You have to wonder, when will we run out of physical space to open up?” he asked. “When the tide is coming in, there are waves crashing on the shore, and you can only take so many waves at a time.”

Correction:  Of the 9,683 hospital beds in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Manatee and Citrus counties, 2,155 were available as of 5:30 p.m. Thursday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said those were the numbers for ICU beds.

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