A Year of COVID-19: SMH Reflects on First Case Anniversary

Monday, March 1, 2021

On Jan. 21, 2020, the U.S. reported its first case of the novel coronavirus – the mysterious pneumonia-like illness that would turn our world upside down. 

Weeks earlier, leaders and physicians at Sarasota Memorial Hospital had already begun closely monitoring suspicious clusters of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, and preparing for the possibility of a pandemic as cases quickly jumped to Japan, South Korea, Thailand and eventually, the U.S. 

“With Florida being an international tourist destination, we knew it was not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ this virus would threaten our community,” said Sarasota Memorial CEO David Verinder. “As we watched events unfolding in places like Italy and New York, we were working furiously to shore up our own resources and prepare for an eventual outbreak here.” 

Led by SMH epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD, Sarasota Memorial equipped its team with plenty of protective gear, doubled up on supplies and strengthened safety protocols to screen, isolate and manage the care of patients under investigation for COVID-19 infection. 

But no amount of planning could fully prepare our community for what happened March 1, 2020, when the Suncoast was thrust into the national spotlight after Dr. Gordillo diagnosed Florida’s first patient infect¬ed with COVID-19. 

Flattening the Learning Curve 

Respiratory viruses were spiking in the days surrounding that first case — as were fears that every cough was spreading the virulent virus. 

An early trickle of patients to the hospital turned into a flood, and frontline workers did their best to allay anxieties and care for an increasing number of infected patients with limited testing and quickly evolving advice from public health leaders. 

As an epidemiologist staying on the fore¬front of infectious disease research, Dr. Gordillo was accustomed to learning something new each year, but 2020 had a host of lessons few would want to face. 

Strict pandemic protocols, including the need to track and notify staff and close contacts exposed to infected patients, complicated already complex tasks and taxed staff feeling the pressure as the pandemic raged on for months. 

Some lessons were frighteningly new, such as the startling delicacy of supply chains providing protective masks and gowns for frontline workers, leading to stressful daily inventories and community “masketeers” sewing cloth masks for hospital workers in case supplies ran out (they did not). Other lessons were as old as the profession but suddenly at the forefront yet again, as hospitals were forced to improvise, expanding capacity by creating new ICUs and isolation rooms in areas normally used for other purposes. 

The physical and mental tolls mounted upon the shoulders of exhausted doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, housekeep¬ers and more, as the number of patients sickened and dying from the virus continued to rise, and caregivers had to find ways to fill the emotional void for patients separated from their families. 

“I’ve never been in war,” Dr. Gordillo says, “but it felt like you were called to the battlefield every day.” 

As the wheels of scientific progress turned, however, bright spots of hope began to appear. As spring turned into summer, medical teams were learning how to better manage hospitalized patients, such as positioning them on their stomachs to increase lung capacity and lower the risk that they would need a ventilator. Doctors began using steroids like dexamethasone to reduce the severity of the disease and enrolling patients in clini¬cal trials of remdesivir and convalescent plasma. And in July, SMH was the first hospital in Florida approved to participate in an international trial utilizing a promising dual-action monoclonal antibody cocktail. 

A New & Shining Light 

One year into the pandemic, the U.S. death toll has topped a half-million people, but December saw the roll-out of 2 new vaccines, both 95% effective, and more are on the way. 

While a return to normalcy is on the horizon, Dr. Gordillo warns there is more work to be done. 

“We have a wonderful vaccine; it’s spectacular,” Dr. Gordillo says. “But the pandemic is a bedeviling problem that vaccines alone cannot immediately solve.” 

The virus has benefitted from a substan¬tial head start and Dr. Gordillo now watches variants arise with concern — some much more contagious and possibly more lethal. Meanwhile, the medical community faces the daunting task of convincing a divided public to do their part for the public good and take the vaccine, while many still refuse to even wear a mask. 

So, he emphasizes that while those who receive the vaccination will be able to visit family members again and recap¬ture some fraction of normalcy in their private spaces, public precautions may not change in the immediate future. 

For Dr. Gordillo, however, there is one thing that will remain forever changed. “I will remember this year for the rest of my life,” he says. “How the people I work with every day rose to the occasion and delivered impeccable work of the high¬est quality and under the most difficult circumstances.

“If you’d seen them ... it was just incredible.” 

Stay Informed. Stay Safe. Visit smh.com/covid-19 for the latest updates.