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Dr. Raul Pino, Orange County’s health officer with the Florida Department of Health, addresses the media Monday as Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings looks on.

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Orange County mulling convention center as field hospital, just in case

Officials think there is no imminent hospital shortage

As Orange County’s COVID-19 caseload continues to rise and hospitalizations increase, county officials are talking to state and federal authorities about creating a Central Florida regional field hospital at the Orange County Convention Center should the crisis get out of hand.

Mayor Jerry Demings and Dr. Raul Pino, Orange County’s health officer with the Florida Department of Health, insisted Monday there is no shortage of beds or intensive care unit beds in Orange County and no imminent risk of shortages.

Still, Orange County’s coronavirus outbreak is showing mixed signs, with some numbers going in troubling directions, especially with a record 1,371 new COVID-19 cases confirmed Sunday and another 936 on Monday. Though recent test batches have seen a slight decline in the positive test rate, the overall positive test rate for the six month crisis has now topped 10%, which was the threshold that officials have repeatedly said they wanted to avoid. Orange County also has suffered 20 COVID-19 deaths reported in the past five days, compared with 16 in the previous 30 days.

“These numbers, quite frankly, are not good for us as a community. It sends a bit of an alarm to us,” Deming said.

With that, Demings said contingency plans have led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to visit the convention center the past two days to assess its prospects as a field hospital, should the outbreak’s trends eventually overwhelm the hospital systems that serve Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties.

“I suggested to them that the Orange County Convention Center could be a potential site as an alternate medical treatment site and they have been evaluating our convention center for that,” Demings said. “If we would need to do that, that would only happen if we exceed our hospital capacity.”

The convention center could provide up to 500 beds to treat COVID-19 patients for the region, Demings said.

Right now, Pino said the hospital system has “healthy” capacity, with more than 1,000 beds available and 100 ICU beds available, and the hospitals have flexibility that could allow them to increase the numbers of available beds, such as canceling elective procedures.

Pino suggested the Amway Center also could become an alternative center.

“But I think we are far from there. The Mayor is in contact daily with the chief operating officers at both systems (Orlando Health and AdventHealth, which operate dozens of hospitals in Central Florida)… and they have a healthy inventory, they have the materials and PPE they need. Where they have areas of concern is in the staffing,” Pino said.

Demings also said officials have seen no evidence to suggest that any of the increase in cases is due to the openings, last month, of Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. He also expressed strong confidence in Walt Disney World, which opened two of its theme parks this weekend and plans to open the other two later this week.

“If we see where the indications would be that we are exceeding hospital capacity and there are any outbreaks associated with Disney, we won’t hesitate to ask Disney to reevaluate the opening,” Demings said.

Orange County has seen a tremendous increase in the number of coronavirus test results coming in, and Pino said that might be due to the NBA and Major League Soccer opening at Walt Disney World, because players and staff are being tested every day. Those tests, which he said amount to thousands each day, are reported to officials along with all the tests of the general public.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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