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Lee Health and NCH remember COVID's effects on community after two years of pandemic

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Lee Health says it will end daily reporting of the number of COVID patients it is treating for the first time since the start of the delta variant surge last summer,

Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System officials commemorated the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss the effect the virus has had on their facilities, health care workers and Southwest Florida.

At a news conference Tuesday, Lee Health president and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci and NCH president and CEO Paul Hiltz called for moments of silence to honor the nearly 1,800 people combined who died with the virus in their facilities.

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

“We had no idea what the next two years would bring. 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.

Over those two years, 1,416 COVID patients died in Lee Health facilities and 377 in NCH facilities.

More than 26,000 coronavirus patients have been treated and released from Lee Health facilities.

Antonucci expressed gratitude for the cooperative efforts of the NCH and Lee Health foundations to raise funds for supplies, from personal protective equipment for staff to tablet devices helping families stay connected amid visitation restrictions.

“During that 734-day period of time we’ve gone through millions of pieces of PPE, 2 million gowns, 2.5 million gloves, 240,000 surgical masks. And there’s been a grassroots 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.

Ilia Echevaria, director of NCH’s COVID Response Team and Chief Nursing Officer for North Naples Hospital , encourages residents who’ve been neglecting preventative health care 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, 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 textbook hadn’t even been written yet. Then the onslaught began,” said Kapadia.

“We as health care 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 heartfelt apology to all of those who lost a loved one to COVID-19.

“Chances are you or someone you know got the bad version of the disease. We as health care 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 wholeheartedly.

"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.

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

Florida’s vaccination rate remains below the national average of 76.5 percent according to a USA Todayof CDC data.

During a roundtable discussion with Gov. Ron DeSantis this week, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo announced that the state won't recommend vaccinations for healthy children ages 5 to 17. In the new guidelines, the state says the decision should be made by parents after consulting with their physicians, and not mandated.

The CDC recommends ages 5 older get a vaccine. The CDC reports the vaccine to be more than 90 percent effective at preventing the coronavirus in kids 5 to 11. Additionally, the CDC recommends children 5 to 11 who are moderately to severely immunocompromised receive an additional primary dose of vaccine.

Echevaria was reluctant to contradict Ladapo’s new recommendations.

“We encourage our listeners and our patients to really work with their health care 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 health care providers on making that determination,” said Echevaria.

Antonucci also declined 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 5 and older. Golisano Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Pediatric Vaccination Clinic also continues to operate throughout the community.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit .

John Davis has been a full-time Reporter/Producer for WGCU since 2009. He is the local host for NPRââââ