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Lee Health: COVID wave has not yet hit peak

By CJ HADDAD - | Jan 11, 2022

Lee Health officials on Tuesday said the new surge in COVID-19 cases and Omicron variant is causing significant challenges and changing the way the health system operates.  

Lee Health President and CEO, Dr. Larry Antonucci, alongside Chief Officer of Hospital Operations and Women and Children’s Services at Lee Health, Armando Llechu, divulged issues they are facing as over the past two weeks, Lee Health facilities have seen a 380% increase in COVID-19 patients.  

 “While the Omicron variant seems to be less severe, it is still making patients sick and making patients sick enough to be in the hospital, to be in the ICU, and to be on ventilators,” Antonucci said.  

Llechu said it wouldn’t be long before their hospitals experience similar circumstances as the last major surge over the summer.  

“The strain on our staff in incredible,” Llechu said. “We are at 93% of our staff capacity today, with projections that over the next couple of weeks, we will get close to being at full capacity. 

Llechu added that due to the high number of patients coupled with the increased number of hospital staff out with COIVD-19 or in isolation, “everyone is (experiencing) longer-than-usual waits. We’ve had to make changes to the way we provide care.” He said about 300 employees are currently out with COVID-19 or in quarantine and added that during the pandemic’s first wave they had never reached more than 1,400 patients admitted throughout the system. On Tuesday, that number reached 1,540.  

“The challenge is not just the number of employees out, but the volume of patients seeking care at our facilities,” Llechu said.  

Antonucci added,” The Omicron variant is a less severe virus when you look at patient sickness and illness. The challenge we have is that the spread of it is so much more contagious that it’s affecting more people and as a result, more people are winding up in the hospital. Our concern is about hospitalizations and our ability to manage those hospitalizations (especially in busy season).”  

Last week, Lee Health suspended non-emergency elective procedures that require an overnight stay.  

“We anticipate that’s going to continue for the next three weeks or so,” Llechu said.  

Llechu said the drawn out wait times at Lee Health hospitals is something the entire country is currently facing.

“The entire country is short staffed. Everywhere you go, people are facing staffing challenges. And healthcare has had no exception.” 

With Southwest Florida being in the midst of “season,” Llechu said hospitals were already nearing high census levels before the recent Omicron surge.  

He urged residents to not come to Lee Health hospitals in search of a COVID-19 test and that staff are ready to assist those experiencing medical emergencies. 

Llechu reminded the public that Golisano Children’s Hospital is available for anyone 21 or younger.  

“There is a fully equipped, fully staffed ER ready to take care of your children,” he said.  

Peak coming? 

Llechu said the current wave of Omicron in Southwest Florida is forecasted to peak over the next two to three weeks.  

“We do not anticipate that things will get better, we anticipate that they will get worse,” Llechu said. “We ask you as a community – wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. If you don’t do it for yourself and your loved ones, do it for our healthcare providers who have been dealing with surge after surge for close to two years.” 

Antonucci added the best protection from the spread of the virus is through vaccination. 

“We know that if you’re vaccinated and boosted, your likelihood of ending up (at the hospital) is a lot lower,” he said. “In addition, your symptoms are likely to be mild.” 

Antonucci said according to their data, roughly 35% of Lee County residents have received a booster shot. 

He said Lee Health has capacity plans in place to meet the need as the situation develops.  

“We’re ready to gear up as we need to,” Antonucci said.  


By the Numbers 

As of Tuesday morning, there were 284 COVID-19 patients isolated at Lee Health inpatient hospitals (29 in the ICU, 12 on ventilators).  

Of those patients, nine are being treated at Golisano Children’s Hospital (ages 22 days to 17 years), four being in the ICU.  

As of Tuesday morning, hospital census was at 93% of staffed operational bed capacity. Staffed operational capacity reflects the number of beds for which the hospital has adequate staffing, not the total number of beds within Lee Health hospitals. Overall bed capacity fluctuates hour to hour as the system discharges patients throughout the day who are ready to go home.       

On Monday, Lee Health emergency departments saw 1,063 patients. Officials said before the current Omicron surge, their emergency departments were average around 900 patients per day.     

On Thursday, Lee Convenient Care saw 512 patients. Officials said their LCC locations were averaging around 360 patients per day before the Omicron Surge.    

Officials added that Lee TeleHealth is currently free and an easy alternative to avoid longer than normal wait times at urgent care centers.     

Lee Health is making this service free for community members so they can utilize urgent care telehealth services from the comfort of their homes. This option allows anyone with non-life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms to avoid long COVID-19 testing lines, Lee Convenient Care locations and the emergency department. Lee Health emergency departments are not designated COVID-19 testing locations. The normal cost of a visit is $49.   

“Lee TeleHealth is an on-demand medical service that connects patients directly with a physician or advanced provider and is available 24/7,” officials said. “All you need to use Lee TeleHealth is a smartphone, tablet or a computer with a webcam.”    

To access Lee Telehealth, download the Lee Health app or visit www.LeeTelehealth.org.    



–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj