How to manage a crisis like the one caused by the COVID 19 virus

By: Jen McDonald

OP-ED Special to News Talk Florida

In early March, social distancing was a term few in our community had heard and Safer-at-Home was not yet the reality it has become. Hillsborough County was beginning to experience the beauty of our spring season.  Several news media sources had made mention of COVID-19, but it was generally thought of as something that was not impacting us directly. 

In the first week of March, news broke that a young woman infected with COVID-19 had traveled through Tampa International Airport and was quarantined at home. The virus had made its way to Tampa.  We all asked ourselves, “What does that mean?”

This is when my risk management mind kicked into high gear. I have always been told I see things differently than most people and, while it is not always said as a compliment, it is something I cannot shake. I needed to understand the virus and understand how I could help our community prepare for the potentially devastating effects it could bring.  

Through my own personal research and speaking directly with professionals in the field, it became apparent that this would become a serious situation. I have highlighted some of this process here.

This is a highly contagious disease in which most cases the infected and contagious people have no symptoms for up to 14 days, or may never have a symptom. Many infected will experience a mild to moderate illness. The remaining infected population, the High-Risk population, will need intensive medical care to save their lives. This group consists mostly of those dealing with other illnesses, immunocompromised, and those over 65 (1).

Global data shows that those in the high-risk category converge on the medical care system in their community with such an overwhelming demand that the system is unable to work. The medical care system does not have the beds or ventilators necessary to give every patient their optimal outcome.

Knowing this information, of the estimated 21,477,737 (2) people in Florida how many are in the high-risk category? Although I do not have the data on the immunocompromised or those with other underlying illness the US Census Bureau estimates 20% or 4,295,547 are over the age of 65 in Florida.

How many hospital beds are there in the state of Florida and how many ventilators? Per the Florida Hospital Association’s website, there are 70,047 hospital beds in the state of Florida (3). Ventilator information was not available.

So to save lives our goal is to keep the need for beds under 70,047. This means that only 16% of the entire population over the age of 65 can be sick with COVID-19 at any 1 time in the state. This does not allow for any of the other high-risk categories to have any need for the beds at that time. This also does not allow for any other need for hospital beds in the state.

With a limited number of tests available to diagnose sick, and the long period of time where a person is sick and contagious with no symptoms, we had no way of knowing how far spread this disease was at that point in time, but we did know it was here.

The best way for me to protect our community was to share critical information and encourage people to STAY HOME. On March 17th Dr Catherine Hough Telford, who studied Pediatric Infectious Disease, and I went live on the Jen McDonald Campaign Facebook page where we covered the basics of COVID-19 and how to reduce the spread, and on March 21st we again went live on Facebook covering symptoms and things to know when sick and self-quarantine. We armed many people with solid information to make their best decision. In this timeframe, the Jen McDonald Campaign website developed a page dedicated to COVID-19 information from trusted resources.

On March 19th, The Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group met to discuss options for an emergency response.  Although the group had two members advocating for immediate action- Mayor Jane Castor and County Commissioner Kim Overman- the group regrettably decided to postpone taking any significant action to protect the citizens of our county. Our Safer-at-Home order was not put in place until March 23rd.

Safer-at-Home is our current reality, not just an order of our local government. Our hands are tied by the number of hospital beds and respirators that are available. Our hands are tied by a lack of preparation by our government to have adequate testing kits, procedures, and Personal Protective Equipment for those administering the tests. Our hands are tied to by our inability to confidently track the disease and inform the public of potential contact.  

This is a challenging time with an unprecedented foe but we can overcome this if we all do our part, what we should have been doing all along.  Stay Informed, Stay Safe, and Stay Home!

Sources: (1): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, (2): US Census Bureau website, (3): Florida Hospital Association’s website

Jen McDonald, Community Leader, Risk Management and Insurance Professional, and Candidate for Hillsborough County Commission District 1