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Health Professionals: ‘We’re In A Much Better Place’

After more than a year of keywords, including masks, quarantines, and social distancing, it seems as if it’s the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“I would absolutely say the data is real, the trends are positive and we’re in a much, much better place right now than we were in March of 2020,” said Mark Faulkner, president and CEO of Baptist Health Care.

Baptist Hospital’s main campus saw the fourth positive COVID case in the state before cases started to surge last year.

“There was a lot of emotions — we all went through,” said Faulkner. “We were in the fight as a community and as an organization very early. There was fear and anxiety.”

There were limited treatment options for COVID and staff was scrambling for PPE. Faulkner said he knows COVID isn’t going away, but he believes the tide has certainly turned.

“Six months ago, our total inpatient census among all the three hospitals in Pensacola was north of 300 with COVID (cases); today it’s roughly around 10,” he said. “We haven’t seen these low numbers in 14 months.”

In Florida, reopening efforts began in September when Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses a little more than six months after the pandemic was made official by the World Health Organization.

Last weekend, he touted the state's reopening plan at the Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City saying "Florida chose freedom over Faucism," referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

‘Transitioning to the next phase’

Earlier this month, the Florida Department of Health moved from daily COVID updates to weekly reports with condensed information. Reports on cases in schools, long-term care facilities, and associated deaths in correctional facilities have also stopped.

In a statement, the Florida Department of Health said the agency is “transitioning into the next phase of the COVID-19 response.”

“The department will continue to adapt and respond to COVID-19 to protect public health statewide,” the statement said.

The state’s health department has also been transitioning away from COVID testing to vaccinations. More than 10.3 million Floridians have been vaccinated; more than 60% of the state’s population has received at least one dose. Eighty-five percent of seniors have been vaccinated, according to FDOH.

“Florida’s case positivity has been below 5% for more than three weeks,” the department said in a statement. “Cases in seniors ages 65 and older are the lowest since early in the pandemic.”

Vaccinations have been the “gamechanger,” said Faulkner. And now, 90% of Florida’s population is eligible after the December rollout. Baptist Hospital has administered more than 32,000 doses of the COVID vaccine.

Baptist Health Care
Mark Faulkner, CEO and President of Baptist Health Care

“Just the creation of the vaccine … to think within a year we’d have an effective and safe vaccine is phenomenal,” he said. “And I think it will be even faster in the next pandemic.”

One big sign of “normalcy” is the lack of masks and mask recommendations. The CDC updated its recommendations in May to say that fully vaccinated people can resume pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask or socially distancing. Big retailers, such as Walmart and Target, have stopped requiring masks in their stores. And even hospitals are relaxing their policies.

“We’re beginning to shift some of our policies internally,” said Faulkner. “We’re still following CDC guidance for exposure with masking. But we’re lifting some of the requirements for our employees who are vaccinated. We’re still masking in common areas and areas of exposure.”

The takeaways

Another sign of returning to normal? The end of Dr. Karen Chapman’s weekly COVID metrics. As the health officer for the Florida Department of Health-Okaloosa County, Chapman took it upon herself to send weekly emails where she broke down the local COVID data. She was a regular guest at government meetings to help the public better understand the risks of COVID and the best practices for staying healthy and safe.

On May 25, she sent out the final report and gave a synopsis of how the data have changed. For most of the summer, fall, and winter of 2020, Okaloosa County was “high risk for community transmission.” At the time of the report, the transmission risk level was at “moderate” but hospitalizations and deaths have seen a “significant dip,” she reported.

In mid-May, Okaloosa County’s health department staff had a positive case. The staff member thought they had allergies and wasn’t tested when they were seen by their health-care provider. When the person lost their taste and smell, they got a positive COVID test, reported Chapman.

A volunteer received a shot of the experimental Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 in March as part of a safety study.
A volunteer received a shot of the experimental Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 in March as part of a safety study.

“Of the eight colleagues identified as contacts in the health department, four were fully vaccinated and four were not vaccinated,” the report said. “The four who were fully vaccinated remained at work and monitored their health. The other four employees had to go home and quarantine. This crippled an important health department function for several days.”

The moral of the story: Being fully vaccinated means you don’t have to quarantine.

The pandemic was a learning experience for most, including the health-care industry. And some of those lessons will carry on, said Faulkner.

“If we didn’t take any learnings from this, shame on us,” he said.

Some of the big takeaways for Faulkner have been how public and private health-care providers worked together to first administer COVID tests and then, vaccines. And how providers, like Baptist, retooled and restructured to expand capacity to meet surge demands.

Another takeaway is the emotional toll of the last year. In Florida, more than 36,000 people died of COVID in a year that saw more than just a pandemic.

“Let’s face it, our community has been through a lot this year,” said Faulkner. “We’ve been through social unrest and racial issues, we’ve been through the NAS terror event and a hurricane; we went through a bridge trial; we went through the election and the political issues we’re dealing with … the capitol riot, it has taken its toll. What I see is resilience.”

Acknowledging the trauma is important, said Faulkner.

“I hope (people) take away the value and appreciation for emotional and mental wellness and the resources available in our community,” he said.

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.