Panel hones recommendations on Florida nursing home visits

Jacksonville woman who helped inspire panel says they're making progress

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s unlikely that Florida will mandate all nursing homes reopen to all visitors any time soon.

Instead, a panel appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed draft recommendations Tuesday to “strongly encourage access” and to “limit barriers to visitation” for two groups: “essential caregivers” and “compassionate visitors.” The recommendations also include that those visitors be tested for COVID-19, consistent with facility testing policies for staff members.

But Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew, who chairs the governor’s Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long Term Care Facilities, did not guarantee that the state would provide facilities with the testing kits necessary to test visitors.

“Yes, perhaps there’s some opportunity potentially in the short term, but I want to refrain from being too definitive about that because of the costs,” Mayhew said when task force member Gail Matillo, president and CEO of the Florida Senior Living Association, asked about testing supplies and whether they would be provided by the state.

Mayhew added, “Ideally, we would want the essential caregivers, the compassionate caregivers, to think about how they could access testing on their own to support that requirement.”

A Jacksonville woman, whose personal story of taking a job as a dishwasher at her husband’s memory care facility helped inspire the creation of the panel, posted on her Facebook group on Tuesday saying the panel was making progress.

“We basically approved an Essential Caregiver designation for those who provide essential care, like dressing, bathing and feeding. Many of us already qualify. Others can join us by doing some essential service for your loved one. And if you can’t or don’t qualify, then we’re working on outside and even inside visitation specifics,” Daniel wrote.

Daniel, an advocate for caregivers across the state and country, said more specifics need to be ironed out.

The task force, which also met Friday, will hold its third meeting Wednesday to discuss the merits of allowing indoor and outdoor visitation to members of the general public and whether visitation should be limited to facilities that have been free of COVID-19 for 28 days, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees, a member of the task force, supports such a 28-day requirement.

Mayhew said she anticipates the task force will finalize the draft recommendations at a meeting next week.

Visitors have been barred from nursing homes and assisted living facilities since March in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying health conditions.

Daniel said that while the residents are being isolated to save their lives, the isolation could kill them instead.

“A big part of my push is we need to be able to touch them, hold their hands and that’s going to happen,” Daniel wrote. “I’m sorry if it’s not fast enough or just as you want it, but if we prove we can take these first steps safely, we can move to the second steps.”

DeSantis appointed the task force and charged it with making recommendations on how to safely reopen visitation. It’s not an easy task: As of Tuesday, there were 10,437 long-term care residents -- including those in institutions for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities -- who had gotten infected with COVID-19 at their facilities.

The draft recommendations being considered by the task force would define “essential caregiver” as someone who provides a resident with health services or assistance with bathing, dressing or eating. A “compassionate visitor” would be allowed limited access as an exception to the ban on visitation, with the exception meant to help a resident through the death of a loved one or another difficult time.

While the state isn’t considering a visitation mandate, Mayhew said the goal is to ensure family members have access.

“Any limitations or restrictions should be extremely limited so permissive does not become too wide of a gate to deny,” Mayhew said.

But Daniel predicted that nursing homes won’t provide access without a mandate.

“They are not going to do it. They are not doing it now, and if they don’t do it, who do we get to call?” said Daniel.

Brian Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Families for Better Care, described the group’s recommendations as reopening light.

“This is all a bunch of political grandstanding. What they are going to come up with AHCA could have come up with a long time ago,” Lee told The News Service of Florida after the meeting.

Lee has been critical of DeSantis for not appointing Florida’s long-term care ombudsman, Michael Phillips, to the task force. Phillips’ absence, Lee noted, was underscored during Tuesday’s meeting when panel members discussed whether the proposed recommendations would allow ombudsmen to enter the facilities.

Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the Agency for Health Care Administration, told task force members that the visitation ban didn't apply to ombudsmen, who are trained volunteers who advocate on behalf of elderly residents in long term care facilities.

The draft recommendations also include that visitors be required to wear personal protective equipment and be trained on how to put it on. Similar to her position on testing costs, Mayhew did not guarantee that the state would cover the facilities’ costs of the equipment.

You can join and add your comments and ideas for the re-opening of long-term care facilities: Click here to fill out the form.

About the Authors: