TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Gov. Ron DeSantis prioritizes seniors for new vaccines, the COVID-19 death toll for long-term care residents and staff members has increased to more than 8,000 since the pandemic started.
The number of long-term care deaths exceeded 8,000 in recent days, with the number at 8,085 in a report released Sunday by the Florida Department of Health.
Other data from the department show that the vast majority of those deaths involve residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, with one facility in Miami-Dade County accounting for 70 resident deaths and another for 56 resident deaths.
With COVID-19 particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions, the state throughout the pandemic has tried to stem the spread of the disease in long-term care facilities -- which, almost by definition, are filled with seniors and people with underlying conditions.
But the number of deaths has continued to steadily increase. A report released Thursday showed 8,021 long-term care deaths, up from 7,970 the day before. The total went to 8,060 in a Saturday report before increasing to 8,085 on Sunday.
In all, long-term care residents and staff members make up about 38 percent of the reported 21,212 Florida resident deaths since the pandemic started.
On Monday, the total number of reported positive cases among residents was 2,885, and 2,551 positive staff members.
News4Jax spoke with Steve Watrel, a lawyer who specializes in nursing home and assisted living facility litigation. He says it’s what the people leaving and returning to the facilities do next that matters in the grand scheme of things.
“You’ve got this huge turnover staff to begin with, but they’re going to and from home, they’re going to the store, they’re going to the restaurants, they’re going to parties. And unless you were to quarantine the staff with the residence, this is just going to continue. There’s no way to prevent it,” he said.
Four counties -- Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Broward -- have totaled at least 500 long-term care deaths. Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have combined for 1,718 long-term care deaths.
But the toll also has been felt in many small and mid-sized counties, with more than 100 long-term care deaths reported in 25 of the 67 counties.
As long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines from drug companies Pfizer and Moderna began becoming available during the past two weeks, DeSantis has focused on providing shots to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents. He also issued an executive order Wednesday that made clear people 65 and older will have priority for shots, though he acknowledged the state will not immediately have enough vaccine doses for all of Florida’s millions of seniors.
The executive order said that, during an initial phase, health-care providers “shall only vaccinate” long-term care facility residents and staff members, people 65 and older and health-care workers with direct patient contact. It also allows hospitals to “vaccinate persons who they deem to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”
After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the Moderna vaccine, the Florida Health Care Association issued a statement last week saying the vaccine “provides additional resources to ensure greater safety for Florida’s vulnerable elderly population and the staff who risk their own safety to care for them.”
“Florida’s long term care facilities are working diligently to get the vaccine distributed quickly and safely to their residents and staff,” Emmett Reed, executive director of the nursing-home industry group, said in the statement. “This has been a complex and long process, but our members are making it happen and literally saving lives every single day.”
The Sunday report from the Department of Health showed that people 65 and older make up nearly 83 percent of the COVID-19 deaths of Florida residents -- a percentage that has been relatively constant for months. By contrast people 65 and older make up only about 15 percent of the Florida resident COVID-19 cases.