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Surging COVID Cases Force Hospitals To Suspend Elective Surgeries

Health worker in personal protective suit puts on gloves in a hospital.
Francisco Avia
Some hospitals are suspending elective surgeries to free up resources for sick patients. They acknowledge things are hectic, but don't want people avoiding care if they have emergencies.

Hospital staff are working hard to ensure patients with urgent needs get quality care, including those sick with COVID-19. But the surge in patients means those not in crisis may have to wait.

A recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations isn't just affecting care for those with the disease. Some hospitals are pausing certain services and have longer waits in their emergency rooms.

Most facilities haven't exceeded capacity yet like at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where COVID’s impact has been worse than in other parts of the state. But health systems like BayCare, AdventHealth and Memorial Healthcare System have suspended elective surgeries in some hospitals.

These are nonurgent procedures but, if put off for too long, could cause patients more issues down the road.

BayCare paused all elective surgeries in Hillsborough County and those that require overnight stays in Polk. The decision was made as a “last resort,” said Baycare's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nishant Anand.

“When you cancel electives you have staff and hospital beds that can be diverted to take care of the sick individuals that need it,” he said. “… Because of COVID right now, what’s happening is that we have more sicker people.”

In Pinellas County, the surge in COVID patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, is delaying help for patients arriving in ambulances.

County administrator Barry Burton voiced his concerns during a budget meeting with commissioners on Tuesday.

“On our ambulance transports, they're waiting – in one case – three hours to be able to offload a patient; in most cases it's delayed,” he said.

Assistant county administrator Lourdes Benedict went on to clarify the average wait time has been one hour, up from about 15 minutes.

"So not acceptable, and it's something we're working on with hospitals," she said.

"Do not delay needed care."

Emergency departments are strained in many communities, according to Dr. Jason Wilson, associate medical director of the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital, which has not yet paused elective procedures.

But he assures those in crisis are not the ones waiting.

"We're not at a place yet where a heart attack patient or a trauma patient or a stroke patient would have any noticeable difference in their care pathway," he said.

Wilson said staff are tired, but they're committed to treating all those in need and have strict infection control measures in place.

He said patients avoiding hospitals due to COVID concerns was a big problem during previous surges, and he doesn't want to see that happen again.

“I feel more safe at my hospital than I do almost anywhere else in this county in a public building because we’re so good at PPE [personal protective equipment], so good at all the social mitigation strategies and the vaccination rates [among staff] are pretty high and we haven’t seen much spread,” Wilson said.

During a press conference at the hospital with Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, TGH CEO John Couris had a similar message to the public:

“Please, if you’re listening to this, do not delay care if you’re out in the community," he said.

"If you have chest pains, if you have stroke symptoms, come to the emergency room, ideally the closest ER to you. Do not delay needed care. Hospitals across the state are open and they’re taking care of people that need health care."

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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