Nursing homes and assisted living facilities across Florida are preparing to reopen their doors to visitors for the first time in more than five months after the Florida Division of Emergency Management released an emergency order late Tuesday that carried out Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to scale back a ban on visitors.
Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew, who chaired a task force that came up with recommendations about easing the ban, said her agency and others, including the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and the Department of Children and Families, would have to issue emergency rules to move forward with the emergency order.
Rules had not been published or announced by the agencies early Wednesday.
DeSantis held a news conference in Jacksonville on Tuesday announcing that his administration would lift the visitation ban, which was imposed in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The emergency order tracks recommendations that the Mayhew-led Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long-Term Care Facilities released last week. It does not require visitors to be tested before coming in to a facility but does require that the facility not have any news cases of COVID-19 reported in the last 14 days before visitors can make appointments.
The governor and members of the long-term care facility task force said Jacksonville resident and advocate Mary Daniel helped inspire the new rules. Daniel, whose husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, took a job as a dishwasher in her husband’s long-term care facility to spend permitted time with him.
She said she’s planning to quit that job now and go back to “being just a wife.”
The task force recommendations included allowing every long-term-care resident to designate two “essential” caregivers and two “compassionate” caregivers who would have access to the residents.
The order allows facilities to restrict visitation by essential and compassionate caregivers to one person at a time -- with the exception of people with developmental disabilities, who are authorized to have two visitors at a time.
In terms of general visitation, residents will be allowed to designate up to five general visitors, though no more than two will be allowed to visit at a time.
General visitors will be required to maintain a distance of six feet from staff members and residents.
Facilities, residents ready for change
Megan Kennedy, Vice President of Operations for assisted living facility Starling at Nocatee, said residents are overjoyed at the idea of seeing their loved ones again -- and staff are equally happy for them.
“It brings me to tears because I see the husbands in my memory care that haven’t seen their wives in six months,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said her facility was ready for the rule change and has already sent new rules to staff and families following the emergency order.
Kennedy said staff will require visitors to undergo screening and temperature checks and that masks be worn at all times.
Those deemed essential caregivers can go inside a resident’s apartment -- but must provide proof of a negative test every two weeks -- per the facility’s rules.
“Right now we are allowing the visitation to happen outside with social distancing, PPE in place, hand washing in place -- and once we see how that goes, we can revisit doing that visitation inside,” Kennedy said. “And when the times comes for visitation inside, we will require COVID testing as well.”
While Florida’s latest emergency order doesn’t require rapid testing for visitors to enter, it does require visitors to comply if the facility provides COVID-19 testing.
Some leaders express concern
Not everyone is happy about the rule changes, however.
Florida’s AARP Director Jeff Johnson worries about more outbreaks because the state is not requiring testing.
“First of all, it’s really important that people get to see their loved ones if they’re in a long-term care facility and they’ve been locked down for five, six months at this point,” Johnson said, pointing out that not even prisoners are separated like that. “To do it to the most vulnerable population is really problematic.”
Johnson said his organization is concerned that the rule change is coming a little too soon.
“We are on the brink of having point of care testing, where you can test somebody before they walk in the door to see if they are carrying the coronavirus or not,” Johnson said. “Why wouldn’t we use that? That would give us at least -- it may not be perfect -- but it will at least give us some level of certainty.”
Kennedy said in re-opening a lot of trust is being placed in families and many are relying on visitors being honest with staff.
“If you are feeling symptomatic, if you are exposed, please just be honest with your facility so we don’t bring risk into any of our facilities and have to revise visitation,” Kennedy said.
It comes down to following the rules, she said.
Attorney Steve Watrel, who specializes in nursing home abuse, said the AHCA hotline number -- 888-419-3456 -- will field reports from families who feel they might have been unfairly turned away from visiting their loved ones.