TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — James A. Haley Medical Center’s outdoor emergency triage is unique, even in a pandemic, provoking polarizing views from veterans and a mix of opinions from a public health expert.
Haley expanded its emergency services into the first floor of its Bruce B. Downs Boulevard parking garage about a year ago when COVID-19 tightened its grip on the bay area. The goal was to diagnose emergency patients and, at times, treat them in the elements as well.
There were a few positive reviews following the initial 8 On Your Side report, including one on Twitter from Melissa Moore who recounted “excellent experiences” when she took loved ones to Haley’s garage ER.
“Both were transported safely to the interior emergency department, after an incredibly brief triage,” Moore said. “On all three occasions, we were seen in the garage, by kind, and competent screeners.”
“Bad” experiences were recalled by many others like Marilyn Horton, a nurse practitioner who said she went to Haley in anaphylactic shock but “drove off and got help elsewhere.”
“The Haley let me down big time!” Horton said. “All I was thinking was that I didn’t want to die alone in that garage!”
Dr. Timothy McGuirk, Haley VAMC’s director of emergency medicine, said the move outside was necessary to avoid spreading the virus, but he admits it’s not “ideal.”
“I would love to be able to take it down tomorrow,” McGuirk said. “Everything in medicine has a risk-benefit ratio. An open area environment is certainly much safer in terms of preventing the spread of COVID.”
Dr. Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida professor of public health, understands why patients are concerned about everything from the weather to being treated within view of garage traffic.
“The expectations of privacy are realistic and justified,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson does believe Haley’s outdoor ER can be clean enough for emergency work, even if the temperature is up and down.
“You can do a good job of sanitizing,” Wolfson said. “It’s uncomfortable in the summer. It can be chilly in the winter. People aren’t used to getting care in that sort of setting.”
Wolfson said it might have made sense to expand Haley’s existing emergency department at some point in the past, but emphasized doing that after the pandemic hit was next to impossible for many reasons.
Suggestions about using the medical center’s auditorium or a combination of other indoor space seem to make sense, but Wolfson said the idea might have been snubbed due to proximity to the emergency department.
“They decided for whatever logistical reasons that they were going to do it in one place,” Wolfson said. “They were going to do it outside, in the garage and try to make it work. And they weren’t expecting the volume and they had no back-up plan.”
Wolfson, whose son has been treated at Haley, added that, in his opinion, the VA does a lot of things well including running a “great patient safety program.”
But he believes the fact Haley is the only Florida VA hospital with outside emergency triage and treatment, coupled with patients’ opinions, could be indicators changes in the facility are needed.
“It’s certainly a wake-up call,” Wolfson said.