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Local health system officials and staff reflect on two years of caring for COVID-19 patients

By CJ HADDAD - | Mar 8, 2022

Two years after Lee County experienced its first case of COVID-19, local healthcare leaders reflected on the pandemic in a press conference Tuesday.

Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, and Paul Hiltz, president and CEO of NCH Healthcare System, were joined by colleagues at Gulf Coast Medical Center addressing some of the challenges and tribulations of unprecedented events over the last 24 months.

“It’s hard to believe that two years ago on March 4, that right here in this E.D., we had our first patient with COVID,” Antonucci said. “We had no idea what the next two years would bring. During those early stages, we were filled with fear (and) uncertainties. We weren’t sure how to treat the virus – we weren’t sure the effect it would have on our staff – and yet their resiliency, their dedication, their commitment, was unwavering.”

Antonucci said since March 4, 2020, Lee Health has treated nearly 28,000 COVID-19 patients. During the 734-day period of time, Lee Health has used millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, 2 million gowns, 2.5 million gloves and 240,000 surgical masks (22,000 homemade and donated to staff).

While more than 26,000 have recovered from COVID-19, and though Tuesday, Lee Health has reported 1,416 deaths due to the virus.

“These are members of our community who lost their lives and lost the battle, and I want to take a moment of silence and recognize them, as we remember every single one of them,” Antonucci declared Tuesday.

He said though the virus has done its best to lower spirits and alter the everyday lives of millions, the resiliency shown by Lee Health employees is special and inspiring to see.

“We’ve come together and continue to show dedication of commitment every day as we still continue to treat patients with COVID,” Antonucci said. “They’re all heroes, and I’ll never be able to thank them for what they’ve done, and I know the community feels the same way.”

Antonucci also thanked community leaders and the public for their support over the last two years.

Dr. Shyam Kapadia, pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Lee Health, shared what it was like to be on the front lines of the pandemic in an area where at one point, transmission rates were high and capacity levels pushed to the brink.

“I remember like it was yesterday that I was taking care of my first COVID-19 patient,” Kapadia said. “It was a woman, she was in her 40s – she was a mom, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a brave member of this community. She was somebody’s somebody, she was somebody’s everything, and they were counting on me, on us, to make her better and to bring her back home. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. We were all scared. We were scared for ourselves, for each other, for her, for our families.”

Kapadia said unlike in the past, he could not just go home and read up on the task at hand, as the COVID-19 textbook was being written in real time.

“Then, the onslaught began,” he said. “We as healthcare workers felt the barrage of patient after patient, bringing us to the brink of maximum stress, anxiety, depression – making us process all of these moments and emotions within minutes of each other as we moved from room to room, putting patients on life support and watching other die before our eyes. Wave, after insurmountable wave.”

As varying degrees of COVID-19 illness made their way through the community, Kapadia said he and his colleagues only saw the worst of it.

“(We only saw the side of COVID) that took away our community members, our kids, our moms, our dads, our grandparents and our families,” he said. “It was our job to bring them home, and we took that responsibility wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, there were times where we failed, and we didn’t bring them home to you. But in those moments, we made sure that they felt loved by holding their hands, playing their favorite music, comforting them, and FaceTiming you as they passed away in front of our eyes. For the ones that didn’t make it home to you, I am personally sorry for your loss.

“We as healthcare workers promise to continue to watch over our community for the rest of this pandemic, and illnesses to come.”

By the Numbers

As of Tuesday morning, there were 30 COVID-19 patients isolated at Lee Health inpatient hospitals. Of those patients, three are being treated at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

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. Census in the intensive care unit was at 88% of staffed operational bed capacity on Tuesday. There were two COVID-19 patients in the ICU. On Monday, Lee Health emergency departments saw 929 patients.

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