Seven months into the pandemic, Pinellas County’s healthcare workers say they’ve seen some positive strides in terms of Covid testing turnaround times and increased telehealth options for mental health counseling. However, many of the issues that existed in March, such as a lack of sufficient PPE and shortages in staffing, are still present today. And with flu season looming, there’s a fear that the healthcare system could quickly be swamped if people don’t get flu shots.
Those were the key takeaways from Tuesday’s virtual discussion hosted by Congressman Charlie Crist and a panel of local medical professionals and caregivers. Crist, who has actively sought financial resources for increased testing and PPE for Pinellas County healthcare workers, listened as speaker after speaker outlined the challenges they’ve experienced since the pandemic began, along with their concerns for the future.
Denise Bellville, a registered nurse and president of the Home Care Association of Florida, said that accessing PPE continues to be an issue for home healthcare workers, and lamented that some of them are still having to pay more than $10 from their own pockets for N-95 masks.
“It’s absurd that we’d still be paying such high costs,” she said.
Bellville also spoke about the 400,000 rapid tests the state recently received, which have been earmarked for assisted living facilities, senior communities, schools and state-run testing sites. She questioned why home health care has been left out of the mix.
“Here we are serving more than 350,000 people and we get nothing in terms of testing,” she said.
On a different note, Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer at HCA West Florida, said that testing capabilities have greatly improved since the pandemic began. Results that were taking up to 10 days to come back are now being turned around within 36 hours. He also said that HCA hospitals have adequate supplies of both PPE and medication used to treat Covid, such as Remdesivir, and that there are enough beds available to take care of people with the virus. Yet he still has concerns about the future.
“We were seeing a decline on a weekly basis and now we’ve plateaued and we’re no longer seeing that rapid decline,” he said. “I would have hoped the numbers would continue to fall, but they’re not.”
Pinellas County reported 23,367 total confirmed Covid-19 cases Tuesday and 787 deaths. The percent positivity rate, which has been hovering around 3 percent daily, jumped to 6.31 percent Monday.
Feinman said he’s worried about a possible second wave of the virus and also expressed disappointment that “the teeth” have been taken out of mask mandates, which he said need to continue.
“If we let our guard down, we will see a strong second wave,” he predicted.
Several panelists talked about issues related to staffing.
Carrie Hawkins, associate director for patient care services at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, said that her team of healthcare professionals has provided excellent patient care throughout the pandemic and said that the VA has made an extra effort to focus on the mental health needs of its staff. However, she’s concerned that many of them are exhausted by the constant demands of caring for Covid patients, and noted that the old methods of boosting morale, such as gatherings involving food, aren’t really practical these days.
“We have to rethink all of that and find ways to honor our staff while making sure we’re not putting them, or the people they care for, in jeopardy,” she said. “For us, it’s really trying to find our new normal because Covid is going to be with us for awhile.”
Keosha Morris, a registered nurse at Largo Medical Center, also mentioned staffing challenges, which she said were already a struggle prior to Covid. She’s seen a number of her colleagues be lured away to other hospitals offering more money, which puts those who are left in the position of caring for more patients than they can realistically handle.
“Sometimes it can be a little bit discouraging to be a nurse during this time,” she said. “I’m hoping it gets better.”
Things could get a whole lot worse should people not heed the call to get vaccinated against the flu, Feinman warned.
“A bad flu season could overwhelm our hospitals,” he said, urging Crist to do whatever he can to get the message out about the importance of a flu shot.
Crist agreed, saying it’s “incumbent upon all of us to encourage others to get flu shots,” but he also expressed confidence in the nation’s resilience in the face of adversity.
“We’ll get through this,” he said. “We are Americans, and we are up to the task.”