TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration announced more than two weeks ago that it would look into expanded COVID-19 testing at facilities for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, but test kits aren’t being sent and the numbers of cases in the facilities are mounting.
Three group homes run by The ARC of the St. Johns in Northeast Florida have 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Kathy Jackson, the organization’s executive director. Eleven of those infections involve staff members, and the other 11 involve residents.
The number of infections is likely to rise in the coming days, when results are available for 200 staff members and residents who were tested by the local health department.
“‘We’re working on it.' That’s the kind of thing that we’ve been hearing all along,” said Jackson, referring to the DeSantis administration’s assertion it was examining options to expand testing to include group homes. “In the meantime, COVID doesn’t have a time where it just sits back and waits. It just moves forward.”
The ARC of the St. Johns isn’t the only provider of services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in St. Johns County that has patients and staff infected with COVID-19. The St. Augustine Center for Living, an intermediate care facility for people with developmental disabilities, has had 29 residents and 11 staff members test positive, state data show.
Infections at the facilities in St. Johns County are leading to increased hospitalizations, which is not surprising as a recent study showed that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in group homes were more at risk of COVID-19 than the general public.
Flagler Hospital in St. Johns County has 37 COVID-19 patients, including some with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to hospital spokeswoman Gina Mangus. She wouldn’t disclose the exact number of patients with disabilities who were hospitalized but said the number was less than 10. Mangus added that “it is the greatest number of patients with IDD at the same time in the hospital. We don’t know if it’s a trend.”
Some providers and family members of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities say state Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer hasn’t done enough to advocate for the people her agency serves. Palmer was first appointed to lead the agency in 2012 by former Gov. Rick Scott and was reappointed by DeSantis.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are receiving COVID-19 testing kits so they can check the health status of staff members every two weeks. But while nursing homes and assisted living facilities get free tests, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities has told group homes and institutions to work with local health departments to have testing done if they suspect cases.
The DeSantis administration said July 8 that it was reviewing options to expand testing. But the state didn't notify developmental-disability providers of the potential change in testing policy until it sent an email July 17.
Kevin Lewis, who is executive director of LARC, Inc., a provider in Lee County, pressed Palmer about future testing policies in a July 16 email.
Lewis, who spent the majority of his career working in mental-health and substance-abuse services, said the state ignores people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“It’s a historical lack of commitment. As a state, we have continued to ignore that population,” he said. “Barbara is the lady in charge. If this has been perpetually ignored, and she’s been in that role for a number of years, then there’s certainly a reason to believe that that would be a concern.”
Jackson, with the St. Johns County organization, said Palmer rarely communicates with the group homes she licenses.
“We’re spinning out here,” Jackson said. “She is the director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. I would assume that she should take a leadership role and at least communicate to us what she’s learning from her resources.”
Palmer declined an interview request from The News Service of Florida to address the allegations and sent a prepared statement.
“The Agency for Persons with Disabilities remains committed to the highest level of care for our customers during this pandemic. We know that our providers want to do the best job possible in meeting the needs of those in their care, and we are working to provide them with additional assistance,” the statement said.
Providers aren’t the only ones complaining. Dawn Taylor is the mother of Cliff Taylor, a 36-year-old who lives at Sunland Center in Marianna, a state-owned and operated institution for people with disabilities.
Dawn Taylor, 62, sent an email July 14 to three state senators and the Office of the Inspector General at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Taylor said in the email she was “devastated” to learn that the state wasn’t providing test kits to Sunland.
“Sunland has over 800 employees going in and out on a daily basis -- 7 days a week,” she wrote. “Please look into this -- I beg you.”
Sunland Superintendent Marguerite Morgan responded to Taylor’s email the following day on behalf of Palmer and other officials Taylor contacted. Morgan’s email said that staff testing is occurring at Sunland “whenever there is or was an indication of possible exposure to COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, state Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew told the News Service that negotiations are “underway” to include testing for group homes and institutional facilities.
Mayhew called the decision to test staff members at nursing homes and assisted living facilities a “first foray” into what she described as a massive undertaking. With some of the thorny logistics of testing 200,000 long-term care staff members now ironed out, Mayhew said, testing can be expanded to other providers.
“It is not meant to be to the exclusion of any other providers or the employees,” she said. “It’s simply making sure that as we expand Curative (a contractor for nursing home and assisted living tests), they are able to fulfill those obligations.”