In the first meeting of newly elected board members frustrated by the hospital’s standard medical approach to fighting COVID, public testimony helped push them to open an investigation into Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s protocols during the height of the pandemic.
Nearly 50 people signed up to speak during public comment: grieving spouses, furious parents, exhausted doctors and former patients varying from commendation or condemnation toward their in-patient experience. Heartbreak, grief, and frustration were all on full display Tuesday night inside SMH’s auditorium.
Many also spoke out of decorum, booing one doctor who said that COVID vaccines work with another heckler shouting “murder keeps the building full.”
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The new officers — Victor Rohe, Bridgette Fiorucci, Patricia Maraia, Gregory Carter and Brad Baker — start their terms after an unusually fiery lead-up in the board’s election, sparked by months of intense criticism from conservatives accusing Sarasota Memorial of patient negligence and major pandemic missteps.
Rohe, Fiorucci, and Maraia were three of the four self-named “Health Freedom” candidates campaigning on “medical freedom,” a term adopted by conservatives to appeal to those against vaccine mandates, masking, and social distancing.
In an opening speech, Chairman Tramm Hudson acknowledged the full auditorium.
“I’ve been on the board for eight years, and this is the largest crowd we’ve had for a board meeting since 2013,” Hudson said.
While not directly referencing the highly-politicized board races and accusatory rhetoric lashing against the hospital’s COVID-19 practices, Hudson made a generic promise to maintain a respectful relationship with the public.
“We may not agree all the time, but I promise to be straightforward, open to debate and conduct our meetings publicly,” he said. “I promise to do what’s best for the hospital system. I’m not out to disrupt the operation of this hospital and its staff.”
Emotional testimony punctuated by supporters’ applause
The first person to approach the podium was retired doctor Stephen Guffanti, who on several occasions shared claims that he was allegedly mistreated as a COVID patient at SMH — while also having documented signs of severe aggressiveness against medical staff. Sarasota Police cited no evidence to support his allegations in September 2021.
Tanya Parus, president of Sarasota County Moms for America, said she collected over 100 verbal testimonies alleging mistreatment from patients at SMH.
Citing a stipulation in the CARES Act that created a 20% premium, or add-on, for COVID-19 Medicare patients at hospitals, Parus accused the hospital of choosing profit over people by inflating COVID diagnoses to receive higher payouts.
“It is blatantly obvious that there is a more sinister stream at hand and that this hospital is one of the countless hospitals to become a victim at the hands of government overreach,” she said.
There have been no confirmed public records that hospitals have exaggerated COVID-19 numbers to receive higher Medicare payments. The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services confirmed to Snopes in 2020 that there is no predetermined amount paid to hospitals diagnosing or treating COVID patients.
Parus finished by demanding the board initiate a special committee to perform an in-depth investigation into “egregious findings.” She was met with roaring applause from the audience.
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Jenny Naylor shared personal testimony on the passing of her mother in February, who died at SMH after unsuccessful treatment for COVID. Naylor said her father repeatedly asked medical staff to administer ivermectin and was denied, as the Food and Drug Administration does not approve the drug for COVID treatment.
Naylor’s testimony was one of several alleging that loved ones died from SMH protocol and not from what was written on a death certificate.
A mounting amount of studies are finding no benefit to taking ivermectin over a placebo: a 2022 project led by the Duke Clinical Research Institute in partnership with Vanderbilt University found no differences in relief of mild-to-moderate COVID symptoms. Another 2022 New England Journal of Medicine study showed no evidence supporting ivermectin as an effective treatment for COVID.
‘We are here to heal and serve’
There were as many doctors and nurses speaking in defense of Sarasota Memorial as there were private citizens lamenting its practices.
Dr. Karen Hamad, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician, provided a detailed overview of the hospital’s COVID-19 treatment task force launched in March 2020.
“We … reviewed and evaluated all of the limited articles we could find from across the worldwide medical literature base. We assessed the validity and standards of each study review,” she said. “Every decision that the committee made was based on scientific review and was sent to a hospital committee for further evaluation before a treatment plan was voted on.”
“I am proud of the rigorous and professional work of the COVID-19 treatment task force and even more proud of all the SMH medical staff members,” Hamad said. “We are all here to heal and serve. Every member of the Sarasota Memorial medical staff stepped bravely into the line of a deadly and unknown virus, risking their own personal health and well-being to care for each and every one of the COVID patients that came through our doors using the best possible medical treatment available.”
Quality committee to examine pandemic protocols
After two and a half hours of public comment, newly-elected board member Victor Rohe motioned for Chairman Hudson to consider a special committee investigating the allegations “detrimental to the image and the public perception of the hospital” occurring during the most severe waves of COVID impact.
“A more robust public relations campaign is not the answer,” Rohe said. “A comprehensive, transparent, and well-documented investigation to determine the facts is.”
After several minutes of debating the regulations of an investigative committee with concerns about patient confidentiality, the present legal counsel suggested presenting specific cases for review by the board’s quality committee.
According to the board’s bylaws, the quality committee includes all members of the board, the chief of staff, the immediate past chief of staff, the chief of staff-elect, and two other members of the medical staff to be appointed by the chief of staff.
The board voted in agreement to present case studies of alleged patient mistreatment through the quality committee but with two compiled reports: one for a closed board session disclosing patient information, another looking at Sarasota Memorial’s macro response to COVID protocol and treatment.
Hudson gave a 60-day deadline for the reports before calling for an adjournment.
Stefania Lugli covers a little of everything for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or dm her on Twitter at @steflugli.