Gov. DeSantis: COVID-inspired ban on elective surgeries hurt FL’s hospitals

The U.F. Health Shands Teaching Hospitals is among an alliance of "safety net" hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Credit: WillMcC via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis conceded Tuesday that, in retrospect, it might have been a mistake for him to ban elective procedures early in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic because it helped force hospitals to reduce their medical and other staff.

“As we look back on that, it caused a lot of hospitals to have to shed staff. There were a lot of hospitals that were half full who were not allowed to do elective procedures,” he said.

Also from fear of exposure to the virus, people stopped seeking attention for medical problems including heart ailments, cancer, and strokes, DeSantis said.

He OK’d resumption of these procedures in early May. Now those people are coming forward but their conditions have worsened for lack of treatment. Consequently, hospitals are scrambling for medical staff, especially in hard-hit areas like Miami-Dade County.

They’re also adjusting their non-COVID admissions as COVID patients come in.

“We want to give them the flexibility to be able to manage that, and I think that’s been a much better approach this time around,” DeSantis said.

“We don’t want to repeat that mistake. We just want to let people know they’re here to serve folks and they’re really doing a good job.”

The governor made the concession during a round table discussion in the Capitol’s Cabinet room with doctors and hospital association executives in which he said Floridians shouldn’t be alarmed about reports that hospitals are running out of ICU beds.

Also on Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported that coronavirus test results collected the day before revealed 9,440 new infections and 134 Florida resident deaths. The positive rate was 13.6 percent. That brought total cases to 369,834 and deaths to 5,206.

DeSantis said that 24 percent of the state’s hospital beds and 20 percent of ICU beds were empty as of Tuesday morning. Even in hard-hit Miami-Dade County, 18 percent of all hospital beds and 15 percent of ICU beds are free, he said.

It’s not unusual for ICUs to run near capacity, DeSantis said, since staffing and equipping these units is expensive. He said it’s also not unusual for hospitals to expand ICU capacity internally or within their corporate networks. Moreover, the state has established 25 COVID-only nursing homes to protect residents in other long-term care facilities.

“An ICU is not a fixed product. If there’s an expanded need, then they can expand those types of services, and these hospitals throughout Florida have been able do it,” he said.

Hospitals tend to reduce staffing during the summer in any event, he said, but this year COVID has increased the demand for beds. That’s why the state has been sending contract medical workers to hospitals, nursing homes, and testing sites that need them, he said.

Lindy Kennedy of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, members of which include the major teaching hospitals, said that for now her members are in good shape.

“We have sufficient beds at all Safety Net hospitals. We have staff. We have the equipment. We are undergoing clinical trials, advancing the medicine. This medicine is evolving as the weeks go by,” she said.

DeSantis has drawn a lot of flak for this handling of the pandemic (see also this), but Mary Mayhew, who has helped coordinate that response as secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, noted praise for his approach from the Trump administration and medical community.

“Let’s not confuse calm with a lack of concern or commitment,” she said.

“I know people are scared around the state, but they should have confidence in the health care and in the regional resources and, frankly, in the regional collaboration that I have to believe is unprecedented,” Mayhew said.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.