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NCH Healthcare System hosts virtual town hall meeting on COVID-19 and safety

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News
Paul Hiltz, CEO, NCH Healthcare System, left, and Jonathan Kling, RN, Chief Nursing Officer discuss the latest developments with  COVID-19 in Collier County and provide information about their drive-thru testing site during a press conference,, Monday, March 16, 2020, at NCH Telford Library in Naples.

The NCH Healthcare System wants to become the community’s resource for a vaccine against COVID-19 once one hits the market, hospital officials said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Collier County hospital system held a virtual town hall meeting with the community to update residents on how NCH has been addressing the pandemic and provide other updates.

The nearly one-hour virtual meeting at 10 a.m. was hosted by Brent Batten, columnist for the Naples Daily News. 

North Collier Fire Rescue District firefighter paramedic Isac Gaitan donates plasma with help from NCH aphaeresis specialist and registered nurse Kathy Moore at NCH North Naples Hospital Community Blood Center on Friday, July 10, 2020. Gaitan recently recovered from COVID-19 and donated his plasma in hopes that his antibodies would be able to help sick people fighting the virus.

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Participants were Paul Hiltz, president and CEO of NCH; Dr. Kristin Mascotti, chief medical officer; and Jonathan Kling, chief nursing officer.

Kling said NCH has been working on becoming a distribution source when a vaccine for COVID-19 reaches the market. He did not elaborate but said the hospital has been working on it for the past month with local and state authorities.

“Rest assured we will hit the ground running to be a distribution point,” Kling said.

The state Department of Health reported 18 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death in Collier on Wednesday, bringing Collier's total since the pandemic began in March to 12,272 cases and 194 deaths.

In Lee County, the state reported 51 new cases and two deaths; the cumulative in Lee is 19,617 cases and 453 deaths, according to state health reports.

NCH has been in the forefront in Southwest Florida in another treatment source for COVID-19 involving antibodies and is now among the highest in the state for antibody testing sites, Kling said.

A positive antibody test for people recovered from COVID-19 means they have some level of immunity. It also is done in advance of collecting plasma for giving the antibody-rich plasma to patients who are still sick with COVID-19 to help speed their recovery.

NCH is furnishing its antibody testing data to Mayo Clinic for its national study to help shed light on immunity. The hospital system has tested all employees and has offered the antibody testing in the community.

The antibody testing is still available to the community and NCH employees will undergo a second round of testing next month, he said.

Hiltz emphasized NCH is open for business and the public should not fear exposure to COVID-19 at the hospital.

 “It is very, very safe to come to the hospital if you need it,” Hiltz said. “We have never run out of capacity.”

There’s never been a case where a patient has been infected with the illness from another patient, he said. Early in the pandemic, NCH designated hospital units for COVID-19 patients.

NCH is also prepared to handle increased demand when winter residents and visitors return, he said.

The first phase of a $30-million expansion of the emergency room at NCH Baker Hospital is set to open next January and will help with patient flow, Hiltz said.

What’s not known yet is if flu season will be worse this year or not, Mascotti said. Experts say it's possible COVID-19 safety precautions will help keep flu numbers down.

“We don’t know yet,” she said. “We are just coming into flu season.”

NCH currently has a seven-month supply of personal protective equipment, Kling said.

All patients coming to the emergency room who are going to be admitted are tested for COVID-19 and the results take 45 minutes. Getting admitted is under two hours, Kling said.

He lauded the Collier County Commission’s passage of a mask mandate July 21 and offered NCH statistics that show how mask wearing, frequent hand washing and social distancing is proven to slow the spread of the virus.

On July 20, NCH had 144 admitted patients for COVID-19 while the number stood at 26 patients Wednesday, Kling said. The county’s 14-day average positivity rate is 5.5%.

NCH next week is launching a collaboration with the city of Naples to promote mask wearing and preventive measures to keep the public focused on safety measures, Hiltz said.