AdventHealth Wesley Chapel Erik Wangsness CEO assumed the leadership role of the hospital on Sept. 1 — during the midst of a hospital expansion and months before COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
“Our world changed about three months ago,” the hospital executive told members of the North Tampa Bay Chamber, during the organization’s first Zoom breakfast meeting on June 2.
“We had heard since the beginning of the year about this virus coming out of Wuhan (China), and its spread.
“And then, in March, it really started to get real for us — and for you,” Wangsness said.
In March, like other businesses, the hospital had “progressively more aggressive reactions to COVID,” he said.
“We started by screening questions at the front. Then, it was screening questions and limiting visitation, masking and then it was no visitors.
“It got very serious, very quickly,” he said.
“We did a lot of modeling around what to expect with COVID, starting back in February and March.
“We were expecting infection rates in Hillsborough and Pasco County — about 4(%) to 7% — of the community, we thought were going to be infected by COVID,” he said.
That modeling showed a need for rooms, ventilators and personal protective equipment that was much greater than the hospital had, he said.
“We scrambled. We set up triage tents and surge tents on our campuses. We brought in more equipment; huge orders for personal protective equipment.
“As time went on, the models dropped and dropped and dropped — and we found that less than 1% — thankfully, of the citizens of Pasco County and Hillsborough County — ended up being infected, that we know of.
“Of course, we haven’t had, as you know, the ability to perform widespread either testing or antibody testing to see what was the true infection level of the community,” he said.
Their testing, of both people who were symptomatic and some who were asymptomatic, showed less than a 1% infection rate, he said.
The hospital leader praised his staff’s response to the pandemic, and also the community’s support.
“There were many, many powerful moments during the last three months,” he said. ““Some were extremely sad, patients we lost, who were infected by the virus.”
At the same time, “there were also incredible highs,” he said, sharing a video of the hospital’s first COVID patient who came off a ventilator at the hospital, and was discharged.
“This was very real, and very difficult, heavy lift, for not only (AdventHealth) Wesley Chapel, certainly, but all hospitals, all health care across Tampa Bay,” he said.
“One of the things that has been for me, that has been incredibly comforting and heartwarming, was that we were absolutely embraced by our community.
“People delivered food. Businesses delivered food. Handmade masks. Letters. Posters from kids, from the community supporting us — and telling us, and our staff, that they were thankful for us.
“It made a huge difference. It was just incredibly powerful to the staff here at AdventHealth Wesley Chapel to know that the community, the business community, the faith community were behind us.
“We had several parades.
“Groups wanted to come and parade through the campus to show their support. Honk horns, fly balloons and banners, show support for the people,” he said.
He also praised the response of the region’s medical facilities.
“Another very powerful kind of component of this is that the hospital systems in Tampa Bay — Tampa General, BayCare, HCA, AdventHealth — all came together, to work together, to treat COVID patients, to test COVID patients, to support each other. It’s been a wonderful thing,” he said.
COVID concerns keep people away from hospitals
While AdventHealth Wesley Chapel was gearing up for the COVID-19 challenge, fewer people were coming to the hospital with other conditions.
“Our surveys and focus groups show a very high level of concern remains in our communities about the danger of COVID at hospitals.
“We saw, over the last three months, a significant decrease in our census — in people coming to the hospital to receive care,” he said. He estimates that the hospital’s census declined by about 50%.
“So, one of the ironies was that we were going full speed trying to prepare for this pandemic that we thought was going to overwhelm us, but at the same time the business that we had in the hospital was artificially low.
“We know that ambulance calls for very significant conditions — stroke and heart attack fell significantly across Florida and across the United States compared to the same time prior year.
“Think about that, stroke and heart attack victims would rather stay home than call an ambulance to seek care because of the fear of being infected at the hospital,” he said.
As a result, care has been delayed and when people arrive at the hospital they are sicker because of that delay, he said.
The hospital’s messaging has been focused on explaining what it is doing to keep patients and others safe, Wangsness said.
“So, what will you see, at our facility and virtually every hospital you go to?
“You’ll see universal masking. All of our staff. All of the physicians in the hospital, will be wearing masks. Visitors, patients who come, are masked as well.
“Everyone, every day, temperature is checked upon arrival. That’s our staff, our physicians, any contractors and vendors, any patients and visitors. We’re checking and screening everyone upon arrival.
“There’s limited visitation. For a couple of months there were no visitors in the hospital. Now, each patient can have one visitor. Someone coming in for surgery can have one visitor. But again, all visitors are masked and screened upon entry,” he said.
The hospital’s social distancing strategies include appliques on the ground to remind people to stay 6 feet apart, and the hospital also has removed some furniture from its lobbies, waiting areas and cafeteria, to help keep people farther apart.
Additionally, the hospital has stepped up its sanitizing, especially in public areas, in addition to private areas within the hospital.
Wangsness asked members of the North Tampa Bay Chamber to help spread the word.
“My request of you, of the business community, is let people know that hospitals are working diligently — not just ours, but all hospitals — and physician offices, and imaging clinics, to make sure that we’re keeping them (patients) safe.
“They really shouldn’t delay their care because of the COVID, really, at this point, they’re doing themselves a disservice,” the hospital executive said.
Published June 10, 2020