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Special Meeting Between County Commission, Healthcare Leaders

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The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) held a special meeting today (August 13, 2021) with leaders of local hospitals and Hernando County Fire / Rescue. 

Commissioner Beth Narverud requested the special meeting sometime on August 12, and reported receiving numerous communications by residents concerned the purpose was to implement mandates for vaccines and mask-wearing.  Narverud opened the meeting by saying, “I’m not here to propose mandating anything. I am against mandates. I am for personal freedoms.”   

“The point of today’s meeting was to discuss the recent COVID-19 surge and the impact it’s had on the county’s ability to provide adequate emergency services to those who need it.”

She went on to describe ambulances stuck in holding patterns at local area hospitals and emergency rooms packed by the influx of patients.  “I’ve seen pictures from the EMTs that we have in the area — of ambulances just sitting and (EMTs are) saying, ‘You know, there’s five of us here and there’s four more on the way, and there’s nobody there to help unload.’”

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Narverud also acknowledged the state’s “Sunshine Law,” which requires elected officials to hold meetings in a public forum.

Healthcare leaders appearing before the board were Health Officer Robin Napier and Director of Nursing for the County Health Department Danielle Taylor, Oak Hill Hospital CEO Mickey Smith,  Jason Baldwin, Director of Pharmacy and Belinda Manuel, Director of Nursing at Bayfront Hospitals, County Fire Chief Scott Hechler and Deputy Fire Chief James Billotte.

From the Hernando County Health Department

Napier had the following statistics available at the 9:00 AM meeting.  

Total number of positive cases in 2020:           7,501  

Cases from June – August 12, 2021:                5,226 

Cases from January 2021-August 12, 2021:  12,245

Variant Cases since Jun 1, 2021:       52 

Breakthrough cases since June 1, 2021 (COVID in vaccinated individuals):    342


84% of current positive cases are from a variant, although the Delta or Lambda or other variant was not specified.


Deaths from March 2020 – December 2020:     339

Deaths from January 2021 – August 12, 2021:  194

The death rate has slowed since last year, from 37.6 per month to 27.7 per month.

The Health Department has set up a testing facility at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, in Partnership with Nomi Health.  Testing began yesterday (August 12, 2021) morning at 7AM and concluded at 7PM, with 392 tests administered.   Napier stated that she saw a significant queue forming as she passed the facility this morning.  This site is open 7 days a week.

Napier reported that approximately 52% of Hernando county residents are vaccinated.  Vaccines are not being given at the Fairgrounds, however the Health Department and various pharmacies are still administering vaccines. 

“The best defense is vaccination.  The majority of those who are ill or hospitalized are unvaccinated.  We know that.  The data is there.”

Commissioner Steve Champion praised the Health Department efforts in opening a new testing facility.  Champion stated that he was absent from the last BOCC meeting after his exposure to a COVID+ person nine days prior, and could not find any place offering COVID testing. 

Most of the commissioners commented on personally knowing someone who has come in contact with the healthcare system as a result of COVID.  Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said he was close to someone who died. 

Commissioner John Allocco questioned why blood banks were no longer offering antibody testing.   April Johnson – Spence, the Director of LifeSouth was in the audience and later answered that the demand for testing had diminished, so they ceased the practice.  Spence did emphasize that these services will be reinstated in the immediate future. 

Positive cases in students was obtained from the Hernando County School District

Since August 7, 2021, 54 students and 38 employees have tested COVID+.  Hospitalization status is unknown at this time.  The school year began August 10, 2021.

A breakdown of cases in each school can be found here:  https://www.hernandoschools.org/our-district/covid-19-reporting

Mickey Smith, CEO of Oak Hill Hospital advocates vaccines and distancing

Smith reported 133 COVID+ patients hospitalized at Oak Hill of the 309 total beds available.  5 nursing units are dedicated to COVID+ patients.  25 of those patients are in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), 17 are intubated and on a ventilator.  Ventilator patients range in age from 25 to 75.  14 of them are under age 65.  One ventilator patient has been vaccinated. 

Smith said that the variant of COVID is not a focus at this time, because there is only one protocol to treat the disease.  Smith also stated, “I also don’t care if you’ve been vaccinated or not, because dead is dead.”  However, vaccination, social distancing and using a mask to prevent droplet transmission is the widely accepted means of prevention of serious illness.

He then showed a front-page story of the Citrus Chronicle, and said, “This (headline) was (about) a 29-year-old EMT that came to our hospital and died of COVID this week.”  Smith reports a 21-year old patient succumbed to COVID last week.

“This is killing people.  And it’s totally unnecessary.”

He described Wednesday evening, Aug 11, 2021 as a tipping point, with 108 patients in Oak Hill’s 29-bed emergency room (ER).  The situation seems to have stabilized by Friday.

62 of Oak Hill’s staff are out sick with COVID-19, although none were hospitalized as of this writing.  Smith reported that 15 of these staff members had been vaccinated.  “We think that the variants are rapidly increasing, particularly the Lamda variant … the vaccines are not effective, [Lambda] has two different spikes on it.”

Smith was referring to the unique feature of the novel coronavirus, the “spike protein,” which interacts with human cells to gain entry and initiate infection.  The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines convince the body’s immune system it is being exposed to these proteins, and antibodies form to combat the real spike protein if someone is exposed to infection.

Answering a question by Commissioner Steve Champion, Smith reported that none of Oak Hill’s vaccine recipients reported any adverse reactions.

The emergence of virus variants is a natural phenomenon.  “Everything in nature wants to survive,” Smith said.  Viruses mutate in an effort to not be rendered extinct when the host population becomes immune.  

Most people are asymptomatic, and do not realize that they are carriers of the virus, further spreading the virus and increasing chances of mutation.  “Any one of you could have the virus right now.” Smith said, “Then you breathe to the person to the left or the right of you, you’ll infect them.”

With regard to staffing, Smith reports that Oak Hill has reached out to accrediting agencies to allow more doctors and residents to provide additional patient care.  This is not unique to Oak Hill or Hernando County.  “Virtually all hospitals in Florida are closed to transfer right now.”  Oak Hill would normally transfer neurosurgery candidates to a sister facility, however now, can only provide supportive care for such patients.

Regarding vaccines, masks, distancing, treatments and other questions, Smith said he regularly receives questions about these, seeking definitive answers.  “Invite me back in three years.” he said, “I’ll tell you exactly [the right answer].”  

Smith expressed his frustration with social media, speaking of non-factual and willful misinformation passed “assuredly” to many people at once, at a fast rate. 

Oak Hill is currently deferring non-essential procedures and surgeries, with the exception of scheduled cesarean sections. 

Jason Baldwin, Director of Pharmacy at Bayfront Health Brooksville and Belinda Manuel,   Director of Nursing reinforce vaccination, advise not to delay medical care for other illness

Baldwin also reports significant increases in the number of COVID+ cases seen at both Bayfront locations.   June numbers show 2-3 cases per day in June, increasing to 7-8 per day in July.  Currently Brooksville has 39 COVID+ patients, and Spring Hill has 41. Having only the Brooksville numbers available for breakdown, Baldwin reported of the 10 patients on ventilators 8 were COVID+.

Baldwin also credits the health department’s initiative and opening the Fairgrounds testing facility with a reduction in patients presenting to the ER for testing. 

Just because a pandemic is current on doesn’t mean other medical emergencies and concerns are not happening.  “If you’re having chest pain, if you’re having signs and symptoms of a stroke, you need to get to the ER.

Baldwin also emphasized that it takes two weeks after the second dose to be considered fully vaccinated. 

Fire Rescue Officials Scott Hechler and James Billotte “Bring calm to chaos.”  Fire / Rescue employing additional vehicles to respond to emergencies.

Fires, traffic accidents and other medical emergencies won’t take a back seat to the COVID Pandemic.  Hernando County Fire / Rescue is still handling these emergencies, and presented a graphic used in their social media campaign, “When to call 911.”

Essentially, call 911 if you are reporting a crime or fire, experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, trouble breathing, involved in a traffic accicdent, sudden severe pain or bleeding, or severe allergic reaction.  

Do not call 911 for COVID testing information, information about COVID symptoms or have mild, non-life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19.

Hechler reports that as of this date, the department is on track to see a 10% increase in call volume.  Billotte said that after an unprecedented rise in calls for service, like the hospitals, the number has fallen over the past two days. 

The overwhelming number of calls for service had caused ambulance wait times at hospitals to be over 1 hour.  Billotte said the county has 12 ambulances, and at times, 5 were delayed at the hospitals.

Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil is a reporter for the Hernando Sun as well as a business technology developer, specializing in website development, content management systems, and data analysis.
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