Lakeland Regional Health is stepping up employee recruitment and getting creative in how it uses space as its staff copes with a burgeoning number of COVID-19 patients, CEO Danielle Drummond told city commissioners today.
The 864-bed medical center reported this morning that 395 of its current patients have tested positive for COVID-19 — well over twice the one-day peak of 180 during January’s surge.
“It’s approaching 50 percent of the total capacity of our hospital,” Drummond said. She and Dr. Joy Jackson of the Florida Health Department were invited by city commissioners to give an update on the virus and efforts to contain it.
LRH also reported two other records this morning: 51 COVID-19 patients in intensive care and 40 COVID patients on ventilators. “Over half of those (ventilator patients) are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s,” Drummond said. “We have individuals with COVID on ventilators that are 27, 31, 35, 35, 36, 39, 40, 42. I could go on.”
Today’s meeting came three days after the Florida Department of Health reported the Polk County recorded 6,521 new infections last week, the third week in a row that a new record was set. The weekly total has grown more than ninefold from the 687 reported the first week of July.
For today’s meeting, commissioners went back to the distanced seating that they abandoned a few months ago when numbers had improved. City employees at the meeting had resumed wearing masks.
Commissioner Chad McLeod asked Drummond about how the rising COVID numbers are affecting staffing and resources.
“The sheer volume that’s coming to us right now is certainly stretching us,” she said, adding that hospital CEOs across Florida report their staffs are spread thin and they’re facing increasing competition in recruiting new employees. LRH is providing incentives to workers to take additional shifts, she said.
“These are very demanding jobs. If you can imagine having to take care of individuals who are reaching a very dire diagnosis at such a young age, the mental and emotional toll this is taking on the care team is significant,” she said. “We’re working to provide more support through our chaplain service and our behavioral care staff.”
The recent decision to postpone elective surgeries that require overnight stays is helping to focus efforts on critical needs, she said. “It’s really an hour-by-hour, day-by-day effort to ensure that we’re able to accommodate all of the volume that’s coming to us right now.”
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley asked about the impact of the COVID surge on the hospital’s ability to serve non-COVID patients.
“When COVID has become half of the patients that we’re caring for, those coming to us for other conditions could be potentially in a worse situation that way,” Drummond said, adding that the decision to postpone elective surgeries will help maintain access for people coming for emergencies beyond COVID. “The more that we can work together to try and keep the numbers from being at such an extremely high level, it will allow us to maintain access to our health care system.”
Commissioner Bill Read asked if LRH plans to require its staff be vaccinated for COVID-19, as Watson Clinic is doing.
Drummond that the hospital is encouraging and incentivizing employees to get vaccines and is seeing increases, but has “no immediate plans” to require them.
Lakeland Regional is seeing “significant demand” for Regeneron, a monoclonal antibody treatment that helps prevent certain early-stage COVID patients from being hospitalized and is ramping up to 60-plus treatments a day, Drummond said. That’s up from the 50-per-day level cited by the hospital’s chief medical officer at a news conference a week and a half ago.
Joy Jackson, the director of the Polk County office of the Florida Department of Health, told commissioners that it is likely that 90 percent of new COVID-19 infections in Polk are driven by the more-contagious delta variant. She said her estimate is based on sequencing done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a sampling of Polk residents’ COVID tests.
“There’s no way to do genomic sequencing of every positive specimen, but they do a representative sample just to give us an idea of what is going on locally,” she said.
Statewide, COVID deaths “have had an upward tick,” Jackson said, noting that “there’s usually a lag of two to four weeks after diagnosis before we start seeing deaths.
“So across the state last week there were 500 deaths. I will tell you that Polk is starting to see a bump-up in deaths. The median age of deaths is in the mid-60s, compared to a year ago when it was over 70, again a testament to what vaccination does” since residents over 65 are the most heavily vaccinated, she said.
In Polk, 56% of eligible residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to last week’s state update, and Jackson noted that the number of local people getting vaccinated has steadily increased in recent weeks as the surge has gotten people’s attention.
“There has been a bit of an uptick. I’d still like to see another couple hundred in Polk get vaccinated. So we’re nowhere near the end. There are lots of places in Polk to get vaccinated. It should be free,” she said.
This video starts with the COVID-19 presentations: