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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

COVID politics leave a Florida public hospital shaken

Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla. on Thursday, March 17, 2023. Staff members of Sarasota Memorial Hospital are bewildered by critics waging a campaign against federal guidelines on COVID treatment.

By Patricia Mazzei

The turmoil at Sarasota Memorial, one of Florida’s largest public hospitals, began last year after three candidates running on a platform of “health freedom” won seats on the nine-member board that oversees the hospital. Board meetings, once sleepy, started drawing hundreds of angry people who, like the new members, denounced the hospital’s treatment protocols for COVID-19.

An internal review last month found that Sarasota Memorial did far better than some of its competitors in saving COVID patients’ lives. But that did little to quell detractors, whose campaign against the hospital has not relented. By then, the hospital had become the latest public institution under siege by an increasingly large and vocal right-wing contingent in one of Florida’s most affluent counties, where a backlash to pandemic policies has started reshaping local government.

Some members of the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board and medical staff at Sarasota Memorial are bewildered and taken aback by critics’ continued preoccupation with COVID policy — chiefly the avoidance of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, drugs found to be ineffective or even harmful as COVID treatments.

“Most hospitals around the country are over COVID,” said Dr. James V. Fiorica, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “We’ve proven ourselves. Why aren’t we moving on?”

People who are part of the “health freedom” movement object to the fact that Sarasota Memorial closely followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, which do not recommend using ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID patients. Sarasota Memorial did allow those drugs as treatments, the review said, but only with a staff physician’s order and, eventually, a waiver.

Board meetings in recent months have drawn speakers who lost loved ones to COVID, though some appear not to live in the Sarasota area or to have had relatives treated for COVID at Sarasota Memorial, according to the hospital.

Harsh and misleading comments about the hospital and its doctors — including that a cardiovascular surgeon would not operate on patients who had not received the coronavirus vaccine — have been uttered in public forums or posted on review websites like Google, Yelp and Healthgrades. Michael Flynn, former President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, who is now a Sarasota resident with a devoted following, attended the hospital board’s February meeting and wrote on Twitter that it “may be time to privatize this hospital.”

A Facebook group called Sarasota Memorial Hospital – Transparency Project has said that the hospital should no longer be protected by a legal immunity shield that limits malpractice payouts to $200,000 to $300,000 per incident at Florida public hospitals.

The furor culminated last month in a disinformation-fueled campaign of insulting voicemail and emails to the hospital staff. “Traitorous,” one woman said in her expletive-laden message reviewed by The New York Times. “You’re going to be punished,” a man warned. When commenters on the Telegram app appeared to threaten the lives of two Sarasota Memorial doctors, using their names, the hospital called the police.

Although the abusive calls and emails have dwindled over recent weeks, the pressure campaign against the hospital has not let up. Before the next board meeting on Monday, several right-wing groups have planned a news conference to further criticize the “egregious recklessness” of the hospital’s COVID treatment protocols and to demand outside investigations, including by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis, a Republican and likely presidential candidate, has built his political persona in large part around being an early skeptic of federal COVID policies, promoting “medical freedom.” At an event on Thursday, to mark three years since the first pandemic closures of schools and other institutions, he checked off the ways in which his administration had resisted extended lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates.

“They were wrong about almost everything,” he said of public health experts during an event in Winter Haven, in Central Florida. He did not refer to Sarasota or its hospital.

Not long ago, Sarasota County, home to the artsy city of Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, looked like one of several suburban pockets of the state that were politically conservative but trending more liberal. Tramm Hudson, a longtime Republican who has been on the county hospital board since 2015 and is now its chair, said Sarasota residents used to be largely “Teddy Roosevelt Republicans” who prioritized small government and environmental conservation.

“It was really because of the Midwestern influence of people coming down I-75,” moving to Sarasota from places like Illinois and Michigan, he said. “And today it’s an entirely different Republican Party.”

Victor Rohe, one of the board members elected on the “health freedom” slate last year, said that he did not support privatizing the hospital; its status as a public hospital with an elected board allows outsiders to “peek” at how it handled COVID, he said, which would not be possible with private hospitals that do not have to answer to open records laws or candidates like himself winning board seats to direct policy.

Rohe said that he and the other new board members do not want to force doctors to prescribe treatments they “do not believe in” or that go against their medical judgment. But, he added, “We feel that a person’s health decisions should be made by that person in consultation with their physician. We don’t feel that it should be made one-size-fits-all, made in Washington, or by some insurance company.”

Rohe, a former New York City police officer who has lived in Sarasota for 26 years, said he was recruited to run the day before the qualifying deadline by a friend — a Sarasota resident, conservative activist and former physician who was admitted to Sarasota Memorial for COVID treatment in 2021. Afterward, the friend produced a widely shared video in which he characterized he and the other patient in his room, who the friend said eventually died, as prisoners at the hospital receiving poor care.

“If it wasn’t for that incident, we would not be on the board,” Rohe said.

He said the hospital had dismissed concerns about its COVID protocols from ordinary taxpayers who did not feel like Sarasota Memorial, a 901-bed facility, was catering to their needs.

“Nobody wants to talk about that,” Rohe said. “So the people who elected us, they’re saying, ‘Hey, listen, we want to see evidence. We want to know facts. We’re not interested in PR. We’re not interested in so much credentials or what the government wants.’”

The hospital’s internal COVID review, which took more than 70 people and 850 hours to compile and compared data such as patient outcomes with that from some 1,300 other hospitals across the country, found fewer deaths and shorter stays for Sarasota Memorial COVID patients.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Hudson, the board chair, said.

Still, Rohe and another new board member voted not to accept the report — the other members did — and questioned its validity. “What they tried to do is cherry-pick statistics to show what a great hospital this is,” Rohe said.

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