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Lee Health and NCH Healthcare Systems commemorate two-year anniversary of COVID-19 pandemic

Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System officials commemorated the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southwest Florida during a media conference Tuesday.

Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci and NCH President and CEO Paul Hiltz both called for moments of silence to honor the 1,416 COVID-19 patients who’ve died in Lee Health facilities and the 377 coronavirus patients who have died in NCH facilities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Antonucci says March 4 marked two years since Lee Health’s first coronavirus patient arrived in the Emergency Department at Gulf Coast Medical Center, which was the site of the press event.

“We had no idea what the next two years would bring. During those early stages were filled with fear, 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 commitment was unwavering,” said Antonucci.

More than 26,000 coronavirus patients have been treated and released from Lee Health facilities since the start of the pandemic.

He expressed gratitude for the cooperative efforts of both the NCH and Lee Health Foundations to raise funds for equipment (PPE) ranging from personal protective equipment for staff to tablet devices helping families stay connected amid pandemic visitation restrictions.

“During that 734-day period of time we’ve gone through millions of pieces of PPE, two million gowns, 2.5 million gloves, 240,000 surgical masks. And there’s been a grass roots effort in the community, too. 22,000 homemade masks were delivered to our staff members,” said Antonucci.

Hiltz also expressed gratitude for community support and donations throughout the pandemic.

“With our community support we received enough donations to purchase seven of the light stripe Xenex robots that killed COVID-19 in between patient rooms…And in Naples we had over 50,000 free meals delivered to our caregivers during the pandemic,” said Hiltz.

On Tuesday, Lee Health reported having 30 COVID patients in its hospitals and that it will now end such daily reporting for the first time since the start of the Delta variant surge last summer, when hospitalizations peaked at nearly 690 patients on Aug. 25, 2021.

The Director of NCH’s COVID Response Team and Chief Nursing Officer for North Naples Hospital Ilia Echevaria, Ph.D., RN, encourages residents who’ve been neglecting preventative healthcare to get back to those routines.

“These include things like physicals and breast screenings, lung screenings, colonoscopies,” said Echevaria.

Lee Health Pulmonologist and Critical Care Specialist Dr. Shyam Kapadia spoke of his personal remembrance of treating his first coronavirus patient, who was a woman in her 40s, and the fears he and his colleagues had at that time.

“I quickly realized that I couldn’t go back home and just read the textbook like I’d done previously, because in this situation the text book hadn’t even been written yet. Then the onslaught began,” said Kapadia.

“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 others die right before our eyes. Wave after insurmountable wave.”

Kapadia also offered a heart-felt apology to all of those who lost a loved one in the hospital to COVID-19.

“Chances are you or someone you know got the bad version of the disease. We as healthcare workers, we only saw the bad version. The one that took away our community members, our kids, our moms, our dads, our grandparents and our families. It was our job to bring them home and we took that responsibility whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, there are 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 face-timing 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.”

Echevaria said vaccination is a safe and proven way of preventing a coronavirus infection or minimizing symptoms.

“66% of individuals in the state of Florida are now considered fully vaccinated. While this number is good, we continue to encourage the 34% of our population who remain vulnerable to safeguard themselves for the community as a whole.”

Florida’s vaccination rate remains below the national average of 76.5% according to a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data.

During a roundtable discussion with Governor Ron DeSantis, March 7, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo announced that the state will scale back vaccine recommendations.

“The Florida Department of Health is going to be the first state to officially recommend against the COVID-19 vaccines for healthy children,” said Ladapo, without providing any further specifics about the recommendation, such as when the new guidance will take effect.

Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevent recommends kids five and older get a vaccine. The CDC reports the vaccine to be more than 90% effective at preventing the coronavirus in kids 5 to 11 years old. Additionally, the CDC recommends children 5-11 years old who are moderately to severely immunocompromised receive an additional primary dose of vaccine.

Despite encouraging vaccination in her prepared statement, Echevaria was reluctant to contradict Ladapo’s new recommendation against vaccination of healthy children when asked about it.

“We encourage our listeners and our patients to really work with their healthcare providers to make that decision. It is a personalized decision and we understand families have their beliefs. And so, we encourage them to work with their healthcare providers on making that determination,” said Echevaria.

Lee Health CEO Antonucci also declined any direct comment on the surgeon general’s announcement.

“We’re not going to comment on the surgeon general’s response. We’re really here to talk about the commemorative nature of this day, but in general, we know that vaccinations save lives and they’re extremely effective in preventing people from getting serious disease and being hospitalized and that’s why we’re encouraging it,” said Antonucci.

Lee Health continues to provide vaccine doses at no charge to eligible people five and older. Golisano Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Pediatric Vaccination Clinic also continues to operate throughout the community.

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