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Report finds Sarasota Memorial Hospital COVID-19 patients fared better than most

Sarasota Memorial Hospital's campus in Sarasota, Fla. Three newly-elected members of the public hospital board are so-called "health freedom" activists who are opposed to COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the illness.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Sarasota Memorial Hospital's campus in Sarasota, Fla. Three newly-elected members of the public hospital board are so-called "health freedom" activists who are opposed to COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the illness.

The hospital’s COVID death rate was 24% lower than national benchmarks. Still, the report did little to satisfy "health freedom" activists who say they distrust the hospital.

A review of how Sarasota Memorial Hospital handled the COVID-19 pandemic finds its patients had shorter hospital stays and better survival rates than most other facilities in Florida and nationwide.

The study comes in response to criticism about the facility's performance from some county hospital board members who were recently elected after campaigning in support of "health freedom."

Members of the public frustrated with the hospital's adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols and visitation restrictions during the height of the pandemic have also spoken out.

After a series of contentious meetings, including one in November ahead of the review and one this week when the findings were released, the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board voted 7-2 to adopt the recommendations of the report.

The board's Quality Committee assembled a panel of more than 70 doctors, researchers, administrators and other staff to conduct an internal review of policies the hospital implemented and guidelines health workers followed as they treated COVID patients.

Sarasota Memorial also contracted with Premier Inc., an independent quality control organization that works with state and federal agencies and more than 1,300 hospitals. Premier compared the hospital's performance data to other facilities around Florida and the nation.

RELATED: Read the full report on Sarasota Memorial Hospital

It found Sarasota Memorial has cared for more than 70% of all patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county, including some who stayed at the health system's Venice facility, which opened in late 2021.

Between April 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2022, the hospital’s COVID death rate was 24% lower than national benchmarks. Complication rates and length of hospital stays were also lower than others.

The findings came as a relief to Chief Medical Officer James Fiorica.

"We worked hard for the last three years," he said. "Our staff, our employees, our physicians, everybody's been worn out and it was just nice to see that we were doing it for a good cause."

Readmission rates were higher than some comparison groups, particularly during the surge of the delta variant, when the hospital discharged patients earlier to free up bed space.

Capacity and staffing issues were challenges that persist today, while testing availability was a hurdle early in the pandemic.

The report includes scientific literature to defend the hospital's decisions to administer various COVID-19 treatments at a given time, including remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma.

Some critics complained about the hospital's limited use of experimental therapies like ivermectin, with some family members claiming staff refused to give their loved one the drug. According to the report, patients could and sometimes did access the drug, with 151 people receiving ivermectin over the course of the pandemic. But very few physicians would prescribe it, as studies show it has no benefit against COVID.

The report also clarifies the hospital did not force all of its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccines, as some skeptics have alleged, though it did offer incentives. More than 7,500 employees chose to get vaccinated while another 1,100 received exemptions.

The hospital acknowledged visitation restrictions that facilities around the nation implemented to slow the spread of the virus also caused harm for many families. The state passed a law last year to guarantee families visitations in future emergencies.

Expanding the use of technology to help families who can't physically be together stay connected was among the recommendations the board voted to adopt.

Others include establishing an emergency response committee modeled after the hospital's COVID task force, improving home health services such as remote monitoring to reduce hospital stays while also preventing readmissions, and expanding public outreach.

During this week's meeting, many supporters of the hospital, including doctors affiliated with the facility and longtime patients in the community, praised Sarasota Memorial for its efforts during the pandemic. But others remained unsatisfied.

Board member Bridgette Fiorucci, one of the two who voted against the report, questioned whether doctors who disagreed with hospital protocol felt they could freely express their views.

Hospital officials say they later learned some of the speakers who criticized the hospital, including some ivermectin proponents, were from outside the community and never had any personal or family experience with the facility.

They say they will keep working to improve communications with the public and prioritize patient safety.

Discussions on the report will continue at the next scheduled board meeting in March.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.