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Specialized care facility for Covid-19 patients coming in Pinellas

Margie Manning

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A 120-bed skilled nursing facility specifically for Covid-19 patients will open in Pinellas County.

Barry Burton, county administrator, told the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners that the new “super SNF” would alleviate some of the pressure on hospitals that under stress as the number of Covid patients climb.

“If we have a Covid positive patient in a hospital that does not need advanced care, we’ll have a place to put them,” Burton said. “In that way, hospitals can focus on the issues they need to deal with.”

Burton declined to release the location of the new facility, saying details were still being worked out. He said it would be a state facility, not only for Pinellas residents, and the county is working with community partners and nursing homes to determine how patients will be selected for admittance.

Burton’s announcement came during a two-hour discussion on the Covid-19 pandemic during the county commission meeting Thursday. Commissioners unanimously agreed to extend the local state of emergency through July 24 after touching on a wide range of pandemic-related topics.

The numbers: Pinellas County reported 288 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 17 additional deaths. The county has had a total of 12,368 cases and 295 deaths since it started tracking in March.

“We have seen an increase the last three or four weeks in terms of weekly death count,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County.

The seven-day rolling average for positive cases is at 8.9 percent, he said.

Hospital capacity: A month ago, eight patients in Pinellas County were on ventilators. Yesterday, there were 54 patients on ventilators, said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director of Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services.

 “I want to be sure that people understand that hospitals are seeing the real impact of this. We’re seeing people who have families and loved ones who can’t be with them in the hospital when they are critically ill. The numbers of people hospitalized are the highest they’ve ever been. Our hospitals are cancelling or postponing elective surgeries,” Jameson said. “In the hospital, clearly the health care system is stressed from a physical standpoint and also from a human standpoint. Healthcare workers are exhausted. They’re been at this for months. It’s incredibly hard to care for a Covid patient; strapping on that mask and gown and eye protection and knowingly walk into that room day after day is exhausting.”

The EMS system is similarly stressed, both in terms of resources and people, he said.

Prevention and treatment: The health department plans to launch a campaign asking for donations of convalescent plasma.

Convalescent plasma comes from Covid-19 patients who have recovered; antibodies to the virus remain in the plasma portion of their blood and transferring that plasma to a sick patient can potentially help them recover. OneBlood is collecting the plasma.

Choe called it a promising treatment that is starting to see good results.

He also said the county is working with its community partners to increase the availability of rapid testing so people who are tested for Covid-19 will learn more quickly if they have the illness and should quarantine themselves to prevent others from catching it.

Schools: The Florida Secretary of Education has issued an order compelling schools to open five days a week, and implementation of that is up to the Pinellas County School Board, which released plans for reopening schools earlier this week.

The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners does not have authority over Pinellas County Schools. But the entire county will feel the impact if students and teachers get sick, several commissioners said.

Choe, who is working in an advisory role with the schools, said there are pros and cons to the plan.

“It’s a well-thought out plan. It  gives options for families, including the traditional model, the online and virtual models. The traditional model will incorporate masks, and the school board has ordered over 500,000 masks … and to address the technology gap, they’ve ordered an additional 21,000 laptops as well,” Choe said. “Some of the concerns with the traditional model that I’ve expressed here is because we are seeing the disease in the community, we shouldn’t be naïve to the fact that we will see cases in the schools. There are some recent studies that show children, especially younger children, are less effective transmitters of the illness, but it’s not impossible … and when they do have a case in the schools, there will be interruptions with classroom closures.”

The county commission took about a dozen public comments, ranging from callers who wanted the county to immediately shut down all activities to control the spread of Covid-19 to others who said the pandemic was a hoax. Commissioners did not take any additional action Thursday to restrict business activities.

Last month, they board approved a measure requiring all persons wear a face covering while in an indoor public location, and Choe said that measure appears to be making a positive difference.

“Masks are a way to get back to business. This may be our new norm, because our objective should be to slow the spread and to keep businesses open and live a productive life, and that is one of the components that may be need to be in place to maintain that normality, or as close to normality as we can,” Choe said.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard sits on the Tourist Development Council, which is trying to fashion a new campaign to draw visitors to the area. She cited research into how people feel about traveling here.

“Overwhelmingly people cared about how safe we are, how much we are paying attention to guidelines, how much we are enforcing the measures we have in place,” she said. “If you read our emails, it’s ‘let’s do away with restrictions’ and ‘what do you think you’re doing,’ but the people who are at the basis of our economy, tourists, care about how careful we’re being.”

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