Lee Health: Those with minor injuries, illnesses should avoid ERs amid record numbers of hospitalized patients

Lee Health is experiencing a record-high number of hospitalized patients in its hospitals. That prompted health system officials to hold a press conference outside the Emergency Department of Gulf Coast Medical Center on Wednesday to urge people with only minor illnesses or injuries to avoid an ER visit, and seek alternative paths to care.

The influx of visitors and seasonal residents in Southwest Florida this time of year usually means more activity in area hospitals, but Lee Health is now approaching 100% capacity when it comes to the number of hospitalized patients.

Lee Health Chief Officer for Hospital Operations Armando Llechu said the current patient volume is staggering.

“I think it’s important to know that prior to the pandemic Lee Health had never had 1,500 patients admitted at one time. The highest we ever reached during the pandemic was 1,674, and last week we were at 1,750.”

On Tuesday alone, Lee Health reported more than 1,040 ER visits, and Llechu is urging people with minor injuries or illnesses to avoid possible long wait times in the ER.

“The national statistics are that about four out of every 10 patients that present to an emergency department should have and could have sought care elsewhere,” Llechu said.

Alternatives include walk-in urgent care centers or telehealth. “Many of you in our community have not experienced telehealth with Lee Health, but I can tell you it is a seamless process,” he said.

“It can be accessed through the Lee Health website. A telehealth provider will see you, will diagnose you, can refer you to a specialist, and can even order a prescription for you without you leaving the comfort of your own home,” Llechu said.

Lee Health also partners with the national company Dispatch Health to provide appointment-based in-home urgent care.

Llechu said Emergency Department staff strive to have every ambulance unloaded and patients receiving care within 30 minutes of arrival in an ER. “We probably achieve that 95% of the time with few outliers. The wait times in the ERs vary drastically. If you come in and you’re having a heart attack, you don’t wait. If you’re having a stroke, you don’t wait,” said Llechu.

“If you come in for a toothache that you’ve had for two weeks, you might wait hours. And so that’s our challenge is helping those patients get to a better location for care.”

Lee Health’s newly appointed Chief Medical Officer Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser said respiratory viruses spreading through the community are playing a role in the “overwhelming volume of patients.”

“The tripledemic is a very real thing. We’re seeing high numbers of flu cases, high numbers of RSV cases, high numbers of COVID cases, all sort of coalescing at once, and that’s what I would argue is the greater driver even than population,” Gonsenhauser said.

Still, Llechu emphasized, the current patient influx is not necessarily a COVID-related issue. On Jan. 4, Lee Health reported that the number of hospitalized COVID patients had more than doubled in a month, to 111 patients, but since then, the COVID patient volume has been trending downward to about 80 hospitalized COVID patients on Jan. 11.

Tips to avoid getting sick remain unchanged: Vaccination, frequent hand washing, mask-wearing for people at risk of severe infection, gathering outside when the weather permits, avoid large crowds, and stay home if you’re sick.

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