As Florida reopens while COVID-19 is still active, Lakeland Regional Health has launched an online resource center and is staffing a hot line to advise businesses and other organizations.
During a news conference Friday morning, local medical leaders said their organizations are taking steps to keep their workers, patients and others in the community as safe as possible as the state has lifted the ban on elective medical procedures and is gradually allowing restaurants and some other businesses to resume in-person services.
Watson Clinic Managing Partner Steven G. Achinger, M.D., and Lakeland Regional Health System Chief Medical Officer Tim Regan, M.D., emphasized the need for everyone to continue social distancing and wearing masks to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and said that no one should delay seeking medical care for any type of health issue because of fear of contracting COVID.
Video – today’s news conference:
All Lakeland Regional Health facilities and Watson Clinic facilities have taken numerous steps to isolate anyone with possible COVID symptoms from other patients while continuing to provide care for all medical and health conditions, they said.
In announcing the launch of the COVID resource center and hotline, Danielle Drummond, chief executive officer-elect and president-elect of Lakeland Regional Health System, said, “Over the last several months, we have learned a lot on operations and about how to care for team members and the community. We want to take that to the business community, schools, colleges and other organizations.”
The hotline is at 863-904-1859, with COVID “ambassadors” answering questions about reopening of large and small businesses, schools, colleges and other organizations.
In response to a reporter’s question about whether Polk County is ready to reopen, considering the continuing increase of COVID hospitalizations, Regan said, “We are making sure we are continuing to stay ready for a massive influx of patients.”
Achinger said that while ideally there would be 14 days of declining numbers, this “is not just a medical decision but also a community decision.”
“We are expecting and planning for an increasing number of patients,” Achinger said. “None of us expect COVID cases to go down as we reopen. We don’t know if will be level or will spike but we are prepared.”
And in response to reporter questions about testing, Regan said that while the goal is to test every patient for COVID, there are not enough testing kits available to do that but “we will as testing kits become available.”
There is a priority system, which includes women in labor, he said.
In the meantime, every patient is screened with temperature taken and oxygenation levels checked and questions asked, Regan said.
Achinger said that the best way to avoid exposure is to continue social distancing and reducing time in the community.
And “the best reason to wear a mask is to reduce droplets you are spreading,” Achinger said. “We want a culture where everyone is wearing a mask to protect the community.”
As of Wednesday, both Watson Clinic and Lakeland Regional Health started providing elective procedures that were delayed since mid-March under state orders.
While classified as elective, these procedures are “very important to patient wellness,” as anyone who has had an orthopedic surgery to reduce pain knows, Achinger said.
Regan said that before surgical procedures are done, including endoscopies and laparoscopies, patients will be tested for COVID-19 using nose swabs to protect both the patients and medical team.
The two organizations have various testing sites for patients who will be undergoing surgical procedures.
“Family members and drivers will be asked to remain outside in their vehicles to help with distancing,” Achinger said.
At the hospital
“We recognize that people are scared,” Regan said. “We recognize that information can be confusing and conflicting at times. We recognize that recommendations can change on an hour-by-hour basis. We want people to know they can have medical conditions cared for without fear. The state easing restrictions will not change patient care.
We understand some people been afraid to come to the emergency department because of fear of COVID,” Regan said, adding people should know that because of the size of the department, “the hospital has been able to operate with two separate ERs, based on risk of COVID.”
Drummond explained that for the 863-bed hospital, 133-bed main emergency department and 33-bed pediatric ER there are four towers on separate air handler systems. The hospital can safely isolate patients with COVID symptoms and staff working with them from other patients, she said.
In essence, there are two zones – one zone that treats patients with COVID-19 symptoms and respiratory ailments and one zone that treats other patients, she said. Even the ductwork systems are separate.
Regan, who is also an emergency medicine physician and president of the hospital, said, “We have heard sad stories in the emergency department about people delaying getting care for life-threatening illnesses. This is unacceptable. People need to understand we have gone to great lengths to treat all our patients with safety from COVID.”
“All patients and care team members are wearing masks as a precaution,” Achinger said. And everyone who enters any medical facility is asked to wear one, to bring their own if possible.
“I know it is not terribly comfortable for long periods and it is not fashionable. But it says, ‘I don’t want to infect you, I may be an asymptomatic carrier, I don’t know. So I am wearing a mask.’ ”
“We want to break through” the feeling of not wanting to the only one with a mask on,” Achinger said. “Make it a fashion statement. Protect the community.”
Most masks are not so much to protect the mask wearer but to protect others from respiratory droplets coming from the mask wearer. People may feel well but have the virus without knowing it, he said.
Only high-grade N-95 masks protect the wearer and those are reserved for health-care professionals working with patients who may be infected, he said.
Both institutions have instituted new services in response to the virus.
Regan said the hospital now has a call-ahead service for emergency department patients, whether adult or pediatric. By calling 863-687-1414, an exam room can be set aside for service without having to go to a waiting room.
Achinger said that the telemediicine service Watson Clinic instituted in March has been so successful “we may stick with it after the crisis is over. Our doctors and patients have enjoyed being able to do routine care from the comfort of home.”
Drummond said the respiratory care center that Lakeland Regional opened at 130 Pablo Street will continue to evaluate and treat patients with possible COVID symptoms.
“We have been working to open the respiratory center in a location closer to the medical center in the next few weeks so we can take it to a higher level of care quicker if the need arrives,” Drummond said. So far, more than 350 patients have been seen at the respiratory center, she said.
All team members wear the appropriate type of mask at both institutions and both Watson Clinic and LRH facilities check temperatures of everyone entering their facilities.
As much as possible, waiting rooms are set up for social distancing and are segregated into sick and well areas, Achinger said.“It is very important to maintain health during this time,” Achinger said. “Most people getting sick are not going to be related to COVID. It is important to get treatment for heart, kidney and other diseases.
“Don’t delay care and suffer a worst consequence because of it,” Achinger said.
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