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Health officials confident in Republican National Convention plans

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:47 AM
TAMPA -

Annual pirate invasions cannot rattle the staff at Tampa General Hospital, so why should Republicans?

The downtown, waterfront hospital — with more than 1,000 beds and a Level 1 trauma emergency center — will operate as normal during the Republican National Convention Aug. 27-30.

It's no different than being ready when a Super Bowl comes to town, or the annual Gasparilla Parade, with its hundreds of thousands of festive — and often inebriated — frolickers filling the streets surrounding the hospital. Convention planning committees realize that, spokesman John Dunn said.

"They understand the need to keep the hospital open and operating." Dunn said.

The Tampa area is uniquelyprepared to handle the crowds, heat and potential chaos associated with a presidential candidate nominating convention, said Ryan Pedigo, Hillsborough County's director of public health preparedness.

Security and emergency health officials have worked together for years, preparing for threats from bioterrorism-related disease scares to massive heat stroke outbreaks. Four Super Bowls, an annual hurricane season and the nearly weekly influx of major entertainment and sports events mean emergency officials and local hospitals are regularly on call for a potential 20-percent surge in trauma patients.

Existing disaster plans need to be tweaked for the 50,000 convention visitors and 15,000 potential protesters who will be exposed to the blistering summer heat in the final days of August, Pedigo said.

"Bottom line, the city has plans, the county has plans and the hospitals have excellent plans. … It's just a matter of adjusting the plans to match the event," he said.

The biggest difference this time is that most convention events will be held in a small geographic area downtown, compared with the Super Bowl's use of Raymond James Stadium and other venues. But pre-Super Bowl events included the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the Tampa Convention Center, home to the Republican Convention's key events.

Convention organizers said delegates won't be surprised by the weather in August, the hottest month of the year.

"People expect that it's going warm. You don't go to Florida and expect it to be cold," said James Davis, spokesman for the Committee on Arrangements. "I think they will be packing their bathing suits without being told."

Tampa General is the only hospital within Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed "clean zone," where police expect increased protests and potentially dangerous activities.

Hospital officials are not concerned, as the facility is one of the city's two Level 1 trauma facilities equipped for any potential medical emergency.

"It's not like something we haven't done before." Dunn said.

For example, the 66-bed emergency room is equipped to double its capacity. And in case of a larger disaster, 71 more stations can be added to handle 200 emergency patients at once, Dunn said.

Also, emergency medical teams and local hospitals annually practice for mass casualties, recruiting hundreds of local students to act as the injured throngs. Crews working the drill on Tuesday will most likely have the convention on their minds, Pedigo said.

The big threats, such as terrorism and violence, have been worked out in detail within the dozens of RNC planning committees. But a bigger and more likely reality for health officials is the effect of brutal heat and humidity in late August.

Convention protesters and delegates will be exposed daily to temperatures higher than 90 degrees, with a hefty dose of energy-sapping humidity.

Additional medical personnel will be in and around downtown, but health officials will barrage visitors from Maine, Alaska and other cooler climes with educational information.

Heat and humidity also was a major health concern in New York, where the 2004 Republican National Convention was held. Reports show that many of the same precautions taken there will be taken in Tampa, including warning visitors to stay hydrated and to wear sunscreen.

Davis said convention delegates will be mostly indoors, but organizers will minimize exposure by building a covered walkway between the convention center and forum.

Pedigo is more concerned about Tampa protesters, who will likely spend hours outside. And while those heading to the proposed "clean zone" have been warned to leave weapon-like devices at home, they can carry umbrellas, a major protection from sun and rain.

Those outside will be regularly reminded to drink water and seek shade, Pedigo said. That, with additional water fountains and mister stations, should remind people how serious dehydration and heat stroke can be.

"We want them to know what heat can really do to you," Pedigo said.

All the attention to emergencies will not stop less-serious medical care from taking place near the convention. Downtown health clinics, such as the Health Department's programs for people with sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS, don't plan on shutting down.

Clients may be alerted in advance about the traffic and other inconveniences associated with the convention, Health Department spokesman Steve Huard said. Administrators and environmental health field agents based downtown also might want to make a lot of appointments elsewhere.

"We're going to minimize our footprint if possible," Huard said.

Treatment also will continue at the University of South Florida's South Tampa Center, adjacent to Tampa General. Patients will be warned about increased traffic, but doctors and patients cannot slow down, said Michael Hoad, USF's vice president for communications.


mshedden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7365

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