A disease that first appeared in China late last year made its way to Sarasota at the end of February: A Manatee County resident being treated at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota tested positive for COVID-19.
Although the state has said the immediate threat to the public remains low, local leaders are intensifying their coordination of a response in the wake of one of the first two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease in Florida. As the school board, county and city coordinate with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, medical professionals are also focused on developing a strategy to equip themselves and educate the public about coronavirus.
At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, staff members have spent more than a month readying themselves to deal with the spread of the disease as the number of cases rose globally. Although there have been no positive COVID-19 cases in patients at SMH, the hospital said Tuesday that there were about a dozen patients there who had respiratory illness and tested negative in the previous 24 hours for flu and other seasonal viruses.
At a press conference Tuesday, hospital officials confirmed they had sent out an unknown number of COVID-19 tests to a lab in Tampa and had yet to receive results. SMH President and CEO David Verinder said he did not consider the number of COVID-19 tests the hospital has conducted to be a cause for worry. Hospital officials said most patients who come in with respiratory issues or other symptoms will be identified with another illness.
Verinder was concerned for a different reason, though. He believes the protocols the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established limit local physicians’ ability to take action, and he wants to see changes to the regulations associated with testing for COVID-19.
“Our goal is to test more and more frequently,” Verinder said.
The hospital said the current guidelines require preliminary tests that rule out alternative explanations for patient symptoms before doctors can conduct COVID-19 tests. Verinder said he wanted to see regulations that allowed qualified local physicians to order tests rather than going through chain-of-command protocols.
“We do not believe people should have to be hospitalized to get tested or be precluded from testing because they test positive for another respiratory illness,” SMH spokeswoman Kim Savage said in an email.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who met with Doctors Hospital leadership Monday and appeared at the SMH press conference Tuesday, echoed the concerns about testing response time. Buchanan pledged to advocate for allowing local testing for the disease in Sarasota. SMH officials said they would need to be trained to conduct COVID-19 tests at the hospital, but they believed they have the necessary resources to handle that responsibility.
“It needs to be done here,” Buchanan said.
SMH doctors have stressed that people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, which include fever, cough and shortness of breath, should not rush to the hospital. Instead, they advised the public to contact their primary care physician or the hospital for guidance.
If a patient is exhibiting mild symptoms, doctors will likely recommend that they stay home and monitor their own condition. If the symptoms are more severe, the hospital will work to coordinate a response that limits a patient’s exposure to others. The hospital said it has quarantined some patients exhibiting symptoms in negative pressure rooms as testing is conducted.
Hospital officials encouraged the general public to keep up to date regarding coronavirus. Sarasota Memorial Hospital has set up a website about the disease and a phone hotline at 917-8799. Additional information is available at the CDC website and the Florida Department of Health website.
“The best thing we can do as a community is to stay informed,” Verinder said.
The topic of coronavirus came up at Monday’s City Commission meeting and Tuesday’s School Board meeting.
Sarasota County Schools officials said custodians are working overtime and emphasizing cleaning of “touch points” including doorknobs and desktops. The district set up its own website and an email address, [email protected], where parents can ask non-medical-related questions and learn about the response to the disease.
Like other organizations, the school district is emphasizing caution and vigilance.
“At this point, we’ve got a comprehensive approach, and we are really trying to be proactive, but our main goal is to provide the message that really, in Sarasota County Schools, it’s business as usual,” Chief Operations Officer Jody Dumas said.
City Manager Tom Barwin said the city’s emergency services department is monitoring the disease in the community and collaborating with hospitals, colleges and the airport as it readies any potential response.
The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, the lead agency working with local governments on COVID-19 efforts, did not return a request for comment.
Chuck Henry, health officer with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, spoke at Tuesday’s School Board meeting about the local response. Henry, too, stressed the importance of remaining calm and following best practices for limiting exposure. He said that although officials have been preparing for weeks to deal with the disease, the timing of the first Sarasota case still came as a surprise.
“None of us expected for it to be here in our backyard,” Henry said.