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Panel eyes quick action on nursing home visits

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew said Wednesday she hopes a task force will be able to finalize recommendations next week on how to reopen long-term care facilities to visitors.

Mayhew told members of the Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long Term Care Facilities that her agency, which regulates most long-term care facilities, will be prepared to quickly implement whatever changes Gov. Ron DeSantis makes after receiving the task force’s report.

“The governor is obviously aware of the sense of urgency,” Mayhew said when task force member and Jacksonville resident Mary Daniel asked how long it would be before people would be allowed to visit residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“We are very skilled at this point turning all that around very quickly,” Mayhew, who chairs the task force, said of emergency orders and emergency rules.”That will not be weeks. It shouldn’t even be many days.”

The task force has agreed that “essential caregivers” and “compassionate caregivers” should have access to residents, regardless of the status of facilities with COVID-19 cases. The state’s March ban on visitation didn’t include those groups of people, but long-term care providers haven’t allowed them access. Essential caregivers are defined as people who provide residents with health services or assistance with bathing, dressing or eating. Daniel said the definition was restrictive and would preclude visitors who provide emotional support.

“There are people who believe what they are able to provide emotionally is as important,” she said.

But Gail Matillo, president and CEO of the Florida Senior Living Association, defended the criteria.

“We have to remember that residents need to feel safe, too. And there need to be some sort of criteria, I believe, at the beginning,” Matillo said.

Daniel, who rose to national attention after taking a job as a dishwasher at the facility where her husband resides, disagreed.

“Please don’t say that, like we are coming in and we’re going to make them unsafe. And we are not protecting our own families,” Daniel said. “That’s how it sounds, and I have to say, that’s difficult to hear.”

The panel agreed to consider adding emotional support to the definition. The panel also considered broader visitation access, including allowing indoor and outdoor visits, so long as facilities have not had any new COVID-19 cases in a 14-day period. Nursing homes would have the ability to decide whether to allow for broader visitation.