As we think about our friends, neighbors and colleagues who have battled COVID-19 the past few months, and prepare for the weeks and months ahead, we cannot forget the virulence of this virus, the speed and ferocity with which it attacks the body and the valiant fight from those who did not survive.
Earlier this month, doctors, nurses and other frontline staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital heaved a collective sigh of relief when our COVID units began to empty, and more and more of our patients – some hospitalized for weeks – safely returned home.
But as Florida’s reopening gains momentum, we are seeing a rapid and alarming rise in patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, many in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s with serious, sometimes life-threatening complications.
The spike is clearly tied to businesses reopening, people going back to work and residents letting down their guard. The virus hasn't changed. The way the virus passes from one to another hasn't changed. Only our behavior has.
The next couple of weeks will be critical as our state struggles to slow the spread.
On behalf of the medical staff and caregivers at Sarasota Memorial, we hope everyone will heed this public health warning:
- We encourage our elderly to continue staying at home, and applaud the extra precautions by caregivers and others keeping them safe.
- We urge public officials to require cloth masks to be worn in public places, such as grocery stores, public transportation and public buildings, and commend the City of Sarasota for passing a citywide mandate this week.
- We ask people of all ages to limit their social circles, follow physical distancing guidelines, and for everyone’s sake, wear a mask in public places.
We realize mask-wearing is uncomfortable and an inconvenient measure some believe will not help fight off the virus. Medical experts are partly to blame for the confusion.
Early in the pandemic, there was insufficient evidence to prove the virus posed a threat from asymptomatic people, and there was a worldwide shortage of protective medical gear. Intent on conserving medical masks for healthcare workers, public health officials initially discouraged the public from wearing them.
But COVID-19 is a novel disease that we’re learning new things about every day. We now know there is asymptomatic infection – a lot of it. And we know the virus spreads primarily from coughing, sneezing, talking and singing.
Until we have a vaccine or a cure, wearing a mask and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others in public are the best tools we have to tackle the spread.
Consider these recent findings from multiple studies:
- Nearly half of COVID-19 patients are infected by people who have no symptoms and do not realize they have the virus.
- There is widespread scientific and medical consensus that cloth face masks benefit the wearer and the population. While only certain medical masks can filter tiny viral particles, cloth and surgical masks can help block droplets emitted by speaking, coughing and sneezing and lower the likelihood of one person infecting another, protecting our communities exponentially.
- If 80% of the population wore masks, researchers predict it would do more to reduce COVID-19 spread than a strict lockdown.
We also have learned a lot from patients in our own community:
- The increase is not just due to more testing. In Sarasota County, the rate of people testing positive jumped from less than 1% to 6.5% in June.
- At SMH, where most local COVID-19 patients have been treated, patients hospitalized with the virus jumped from 9 on June 4 to 45 on June 30, surpassing the previous peak of 43 in May.
- While some think COVID-19 primarily strikes the elderly, the average age of patients admitted with COVID-19 at SMH in June was 49, with more than half under age 50, compared to a majority over age 70 in March and April.
It's a critical reminder that everyone should be cautious and concerned. Please join us in taking every precaution to help reduce this community spread.
James Fiorica, MD
Sarasota Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer
Alissa Shulman, MD
SMH Chief of Staff
Manuel Gordillo, MD
Medical Director, SMH Infection Prevention and Control
President & CEO, Sarasota Memorial Health Care System