SMH officials say organized critics have ‘political agenda’

Sarasota memorial Hospital Board Chair Tramm Hudson, left and SMH Chief medical Officer Dr....
Sarasota memorial Hospital Board Chair Tramm Hudson, left and SMH Chief medical Officer Dr. James Fiorica spoke to reporters Friday.(WWSB-TV)
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 4:27 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials, anticipating another large and possibly raucous turnout at its March 20 hospital board meeting, held a news conference Friday to defend the hospital’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hospital sent an invitation to media saying the Zelenko Freedom Foundation, based in Osprey, was planning a “a separate press conference that has been scheduled the same day (March 20) by a health freedom group that has made SMH the target of a malicious misinformation campaign.”

The hospital also says its staff has received threatening messages on social media -- including death threats -- over the results a recent review of SMH’s performance during the pandemic.

In February, more than 300 people attended a meeting of the hospital board that discussed the results of a three-year review of SMH’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The review was prompted by citizen complaints that patients’ rights were routinely violated regarding treatment methods and visitation by family members.

The report concluded, overall, that the hospital saved lives, strengthened the community and provided vital information, advice and education.

However, the report was critical of the visitation restrictions during the height of the pandemic, calling them “detrimental to the spiritual and emotional well-being of patients and their loved ones.”

The report also noted many patients stayed longer than necessary because of a lack of space in nonacute care facilities; many patients were also had to be readmitted because of preexisting and chronic health conditions.

Hospital Board Chair Tramm Hudson noted Friday that a hospital can never please 100% of its patients. “The folks who have come forward have told touching stories,” he said. “We’re sorry for their loss, but given the circumstances, it was a tough, tough time. Some folks are just not going to accept whatever was rendered.

SMH Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Fiorica also defended SMH’s performance Friday. “We just didn’t take the healthier patients. We took the sickest of the sick,” he said. “We took everyone that came through the emergency room, we even accepted 8,000 transports from other facilities. We felt like we did our share and we were proud of the results of that report.”

“One of the key things that we looked at our mortality rate,” Hudson said. “In Sarasota County, we treated over 70% of the COVID cases over the three years. Our rate compared very very favorably to other hospitals.”

Hudson said the majority of the criticism the hospital is receiving is from people who don’t live on Sarasota County. “A number of them are from out of town and out of state,” he said. As a publicly funded hospital, board meetings are open and anyone can speak. “Some groups are using our platform as a way of advancing their agenda for whatever political reasons.”

In the invitation to Friday’s news conference, the hospital suggested the Zelenko Foundation had ties to ultra right-wing groups. “What’s most concerning are some of the organizers involved and their affiliations to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, including former National Security Advisor Gen. Mike Flynn and Cindy Chafin, director of the Sarasota Moms for America chapter and the executive director of the Zelenko Foundation, the group organizing the local press conference,” it said.

The death threats were a major concern. “The attacks are unfounded and quite frankly, reprehensible,” Hudson said. “We’ve had death threats to some of our doctors. Our medical staff has been subjected to very rude behavior.

“I hope that the people in Sarasota understand what the hospital did was to enure the very best care we could provide.”

“It’s extremely disappointing, Fiorica said. “You’re coming in to take care of the sickest patients, working hours are incredibly long ... then you get this result. It’s wrong. It’s not acceptable.

“We just want to take care of patients,” Fiorica said.

The March 20 meeting begins at 2 p.m. at the hospital.