Local hospitals are gearing up for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients in connection with the ongoing spread of the new coronavirus.

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FORT WALTON BEACH — "Flattening the curve" is the operative phrase in the public health battle against coronavirus. It refers to the need to slow the rise in cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus. That slowing could help keep hospitals from being stretched beyond capacity.



Another catchphrase, "ahead of the curve," was used recently by Dr. Robert Kiskaddon, chief medical officer at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, to describe the hospital’s stance as the number of positive local tests for COVID-19 continues to rise.


"I think we are well ahead of the curve on preparation," Kiskaddon said earlier this week.


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As of Thursday morning, there were nearly 40 COVID cases in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties, with nearly half of them in Okaloosa County. However, no COVID-19 patients had been admitted to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center or its sister facility, Twin Cities Hospital in Niceville, as of late Thursday morning.


Figures for two other area hospitals, Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach and Healthmark Regional Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs, were not immediately available.


In terms of physical equipment available for COVID-19 patients, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center has 29 intensive-care unit (ICU) beds, Kiskaddon said.


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Also on hand are 30 ventilators, Kiskaddon said, a number that could be expanded to about 40 by converting anesthesia equipment.


At Twin Cities there are eight ICU beds, and that number could expand to 18 if needed, according to Denise Kendust, spokeswoman for both hospitals. Twin Cities has 15 ventilators, Kendust added.


Overall, health care facilities in Okaloosa County have 52 adult ICU beds, including beds available at North Okaloosa Medical Center in Crestview but not including the ICU beds at the Eglin Air Force Base hospital.


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The Eglin hospital is operating under a Department of Defense mandate to postpone elective surgeries for 60 days beginning March 31 to preserve medical supplies and ensure staff are available for COVID-19 care.


The policy applies to all beneficiaries: active duty service members and their families, retirees, and Reserve and National Guard service members on active duty or a delayed effective date active duty order.


ICU beds and ventilators are critical for treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients, and there are worries nationwide about hospitals having enough of them.


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U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress, joined a number of other members of the state’s congressional delegation last week in asking Vice President Mike Pence, head of the federal coronavirus task force, to steer 5,000 ventilators and an unspecified number of mobile ICUs to the state, along with other medical equipment and supplies, within 48 hours.


Their letter argued Florida’s population includes 4.4 million people over the age of 65, people at risk for needing intensive COVID-19 care.


On Thursday, Gaetz’s office said Pence’s office had the letter "and we are working closely with them to ensure essential supplies are being delivered to Florida." Gaetz’s office did not offer any specifics regarding what resources are, or might be, coming to Florida.


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Even though it had no COVID-19 patients Thursday, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center is expecting a surge, according to Kiskaddon. In recent days, the hospital has seen an increased number of PUI (persons under investigation), people suspected of having COVID-19 and awaiting test results, he said..


At present, Kiskaddon added, any COVID-positive patient who came to the hospital would, if asymptomatic, be advised to go home and self-quarantine.


"Our goal is to save our resources," he said.


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Kiskaddon said the hospital is treating some PUIs with a combination of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, and azithromycin, an antibiotic. Some success in treating COVID-19 with that combination of drugs has been reported in some studies.


A team comprising personnel from a range of hospital departments has been meeting since February for COVID-19 planning. Among those plans, if needed, is setting up an isolation area in the hospital to keep COVID-19 patients and the people treating them separate from the rest of the hospital population, Kiskaddon said.


The hospital’s experience during 2018’s Hurricane Michael, when it was taking patients from areas to the east where medical facilities had been virtually wiped out, served as preparation for COVID-19.


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"Since Hurricane Michael, we’ve become masters of surge management," Kiskaddon said.


But as Fort Walton Beach Medical Center gears up for the COVID-19 surge, some staff have complained anonymously to the Daily News that they are concerned about hospital policies, including the use of masks. According to Kendust, the hospital is following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on the use of masks.


Elsewhere in the area, Ron Kelley, spokesman for Healthmark Regional Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs, said the facility has six ICU beds. Kelley referred questions regarding the number of COVID-19 patients, if any, at Healthmark to the Florida Department of Health in Walton County.


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On Tuesday, Healthmark issued a news release in which Chief Operations Officer Gerald Beard asks people who believe they have COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone who may have it, to call the hospital before coming in.


Healthmark has implemented screening procedures for patients and visitors, and has restricted entry to only the outpatient entrance.


Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast Hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment on COVID-19 preparations, but the facility’s website — at https://healthcare.ascension.org/Specialty-Care/Coronavirus — provides some guidance. The website offers an online self-assessment for COVID-19, with the warning that it’s not a substitute for medical attention.


At North Okaloosa Medical Center, all patients are being screened for COVID-19 symptoms and risk factors. According to the facility’s website, "when a physician determines a patient meets the risk criteria, they will order testing and manage the patient’s care and ultimate disposition."