TALLAHASSEE — In a little more than a month, the doors of the Florida Capitol are scheduled to swing open as 160 legislators get back to work.
The looming question is whether the closed-door, window-free spaces used by lawmakers and hundreds of staff members will be safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s up to Seetha Lakshmi and her team to help figure out how to draw up a plan to accomplish that goal — especially since legislative leaders have already said they are required under law to do their business in person and not remotely.
Lawmakers are scheduled to hold a constitutionally required organization session Nov. 17, when new members will be sworn in and new leaders will be formally selected for the next two years. It’s usually a high-profile event that attracts the governor and other top state officials.
Lakshmi makes it clear: She can’t guarantee that when the House and Senate reopen for business that there will be no risk of contracting COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
“There is never going to be zero risk,” said Lakshmi, an assistant professor of infectious disease at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and an epidemiologist for Tampa General Hospital. “We have to learn to live with this. We are essentially aiming at protecting lives and livelihoods in many ways. It’s been such a moving target. The best we can do is look at the science, look at what we can do successfully and spread the word. That is pretty much what TPRO (the program) is doing every day.”
Lakshmi and her team were brought in after the Florida Senate signed a two-year contract with Tampa General Hospital for prevention response and outreach services. The services are provided under the moniker TPRO, which stands for TGH Prevention Response Outreach.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Senate will pay $266.67 an hour for work done by physicians and $200 an hour for work done by non-physicians. The contract is for an unlimited number of hours.
“We’re looking at this as a true partnership with the Senate in the work that we are doing,” TPRO business development leader Steven Chew said.
TPRO has not been contacted by the House of Representatives or the governor’s office, which, along with the Florida Senate, are located in the Capitol building.
Creating the infection-control plan includes assessing and implementing changes in three broad areas: engineering, administration, and personal protective equipment. Lakshmi illustrated how the components work together by telling a story of a turtle in a briar patch.
“The way I look at it, if you’re a turtle in a briar patch you have to navigate a difficult situation,” she said, paraphrasing University of Houston research professor Brene Brown. “Imagine you are a turtle in a briar patch. The environmental control is the briar patch that is thorny. Ideally, if that was not there, or if it were a regular tree without thorns, that’s ideal. If that’s not possible, the turtle can change maybe the path it chooses so it’s not going through the briar patch, and that would be the administrative controls. And the last piece is the personal protective equipment. The turtle has its own shell. For him, it’s easy, he’s got the shell the whole time. But mask-wearing is not that easy, as you notice it takes practice time and behaviors.”
She and two other TPRO consultants were in Tallahassee for two days last week examining buildings, meeting with staff and collecting data about the air-conditioning and heating systems.
Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said the team evaluated all of the Senate areas in the Capitol, the Senate Office Building and the Capitol’s Knott Building, as well as entry and exit points to the buildings, hallways, bridges and elevators.
Charly Lockwood, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the college of medicine, is familiar with the halls of the Senate and the Capitol. Lockwood said issues involving the air-conditioning system, such as how well it’s been maintained and the number of air exchanges that can be generated, will be key to ensuring a safe environment and controlling contamination.
“The second really critical thing is to be able to socially distance and obviously have them be compliant with face masks. That’s really important,” Lockwood added.
TPRO only makes recommendations. Chew said it doesn’t follow up to see whether the recommendations are followed.
The COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the United States and Florida in early spring, which is when lawmakers were winding down this year’s regular legislative session.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, at one point ordered the House chamber closed and disinfected after he announced that five members had potentially been exposed to COVID-19 after traveling to conferences in Washington, D.C.
While its work has sprung from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chew said TPRO’s consulting will transcend the pandemic, which has killed 214,711 Americans and 15,412 Florida residents.
“We purposely didn’t put COVID or coronavirus in the name. It’s more than that. It’s more than just a pandemic,” Chew said. “It’s about safety in general and education. Education is a big part of the platform as well.”
Lakshmi doesn’t mind a long-term commitment.
“I feel like I’m fulfilling my destiny. I love epidemiology,” Lakshmi said. “I love how epidemics and pandemics shape human history. If you look at the plague and the Spanish flu, they have had an impact on human history and human genetics. Like, we are a changed genetic composition because those who survived had a particular type of genetic makeup. A survival advantage, you know? So as a science, it’s super cool and super interesting. And actually now that I am in this position, I see the science and I want to be able to help.”