PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — As the rise in coronavirus cases begin to overwhelm Florida hospitals, Pinellas County is planning to open a skilled nursing center for up to 120 patients being treated for the coronavirus who don't require hospitalization.
During Thursday's Pinellas County Commission meeting, County Administrator Barry Burton announced that the county and state are working together to open a facility specifically for coronavirus patients who don't require advanced medical care at a hospital.
He didn't announce the location of the facility because he said organizers are still working out the details. However, he said, the facility will free up needed hospital beds.
"We certainly don't want to continue to strain the hospital system," said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
The announcement comes as some hospital groups including HCA and BayCare Health System announce they are limiting elective surgeries due to a spike in coronavirus cases coming into hospitals.
Among them are BayCare's St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Mortan Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor and Mease Dunedin Hospital, along with HCA's Largo Medical Center, Palms of Pasadena, St. Petersburg General
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Burton said the county is seeing a rolling average of 369 new cases of coronavirus a day. Although that is a positivity rate of 9.3 percent, below the 10 percent threshold, he said it still represents a significant "communitywide spread."
Pinellas County Emergency Services Director Dr. Angus Jameson, painted a bleaker picture. Jameson is on staff at Tampa General Hospital and was working in the ER late Wednesday night.
"The ERs are an interesting place right now," he said. "We have lots of COVID-positive patients, some who are not terribly ill and some who are deathly ill. The hospitals are seeing a real impact because of this. We have numbers hospitalized right now that are the highest we've seen. Clearly, the health care system is stressed from a physical standpoint and, frankly, from a human standpoint. It's incredibly hard to care for patients with COVID. It's exhausting. They've been at this for months."
Just a month ago, Jameson said there were only eight coronavirus patients on ventilators at his hospital. On Wednesday night, that number had increased to 54 patients.
"You should know that the hospitals are stressed and strained, and so are our health care workers," he said.
Jameson said it's also been taxing on the county's emergency medical services who are transporting coronavirus patients as well as patients with other medical conditions who are frightened to go to the hospital.
"We're stressed in terms of resources," Jameson said. "But EMS is taking steps to deal with what we're seeing. We have maintained response times and standards of care and the paramedics are doing outstanding work out there every day."
"Our health care system capacity is strained," Choe said. "We're hitting the highest numbers we've seen in Pinellas County."
To date, 12,368 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 300 people have died.
The good news, said Choe, is that the county is seeing widespread compliance with the face mask mandate "and it's having an impact."
Choe also announced that the county is hosting a launching a plasma drive, seeking donations of plasma from residents who have recovered from coronavirus so their antibodies can be used for patients who are fighting off the virus. Anyone wishing to donate plasma is urged to contact Oneblood.