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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 26, 2020 2 days ago

Sarasota Memorial Hospital discusses COVID-19 response

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The hospital is working with its partner foundation and accepting public donations to ensure it continues to have the equipment it needs to address coronavirus cases.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As communities across the country evaluate their capacity to handle the medical challenges associated with the spread of COVID-19, David Verinder feels Sarasota Memorial Hospital is well positioned to address the needs of its patients.

“We’re very prepared right now for the volumes we’re seeing,” said Verinder, president and CEO of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System. “It’s very hard to anticipate what may or may not come.”

After the first patient at SMH tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13, there has been a steady increase in confirmed cases locally. As of Wednesday morning, 27 individuals in the area tested positive. One of those individuals, a patient at SMH, died Tuesday.

Eleven confirmed COVID-19 patients remain hospitalized at SMH. Another 71 patients at the hospital are “under investigation.” But if the hospital is busier now than it otherwise would be, Verinder said it isn’t by much.  So far, the volume of COVID-19 cases isn’t as high as some feared.

Verinder indicated the situation surrounding the disease could change quickly. He said the hospital is planning to ensure it’s ready for an increased number of patients in the coming weeks, but he expressed confidence the hospital is prepared, at least to an extent. Verinder acknowledged the hospital’s course of action would likely be insufficient if the rate of hospitalization began to look like what it does in New York or Italy, but he said those conditions do not appear imminent. He said state- and federal-level coordination would be necessary in the worst-case scenarios.

Data as of Tuesday, March 25.

For now, Verinder said Sarasota’s response to COVID-19 appears to be going relatively well. According to state data, 7% of tested individuals in the county have returned positive results. Verinder said he’s sure there are more cases that are yet to be diagnosed, and he’s hopeful testing capacity will continue to increase in the next two weeks.

Verinder said not to let the low number of positive tests create a false sense of security, urging the public to adhere to social distancing guidelines. And although he said hospitalization rates won’t necessarily increase significantly as testing expands, he said it’s difficult to use existing conditions to project how COVID-19 will affect Sarasota.

“I think it’s very hard for us to predict what we’re going to look like two weeks from now or a month from now,” Verinder said.

As the hospital plans for the future, it’s receiving philanthropic support. On Friday, Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation announced it had approved more than $1 million in grants to support the hospital’s response to COVID-19. The money includes $368,023 for ventilators, $255,885 for three disinfection robots and $157,500 for a molecular infectious disease diagnostic device.

The foundation’s director of communications, Ticia Mahler, said the plan for the grant spending was developed after the nonprofit consulted with Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System leaders. Early into the coronavirus response, Mahler said the additional equipment was targeted more at augmenting work the hospital is already doing rather than addressing any urgent gaps.

The foundation continues to accept donations from the public and is advertising a COVID-19 Patient Care Fund on its website, SMHF.org. Other charitable groups are also trying to find opportunities to help: On Saturday, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation announced they were launching a COVID-19 response initiative “to fortify key health and safety organizations in the region” with an initial commitment of $1.5 million.

SMH itself is accepting donations of commercially produced medical supplies and handmade masks and gowns. Verinder said the hospital has the supplies it needs today, but it’s trying to address both the rate it uses stock and the capacity to find new materials.

As health care leaders attempt to address a novel disease, philanthropic organizations find themselves in a reactive position  as well.

“Even for us, this is a developing situation, and we will continue to work with the hospital and do everything we can to help meet their needs as they have them for us,” Mahler said.

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