ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Gailya Stewart says her brother is unable to talk after suffering from a stroke years ago. Communication has been a struggle ever since, but even more so now that they can’t visit him in his long-term care facility in Orange Park.
Stewart’s brother lives at Heartland Healthcare Center. It’s been nearly a month since she’s seen him in person because of the governor’s guidance aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Florida senior living facilities and nursing homes.
According to Stewart, her brother has now tested positive for COVID-19.
“They told us my brother tested positive along with some other residents and that they would be isolated to one part of the facility,” said Stewart. “We are not getting the full picture at all. So, we can only rely on the info that’s given and that’s not a good thing because we are not able to check for ourselves.”
Multiple families with loved ones at Orange Park Heartland Healthcare Center describe getting a phone call telling them their relative tested positive for novel coronavirus. But, they also describe not getting an answer when they press for how many other patients are testing positive with the virus.
The long-term care facility said it learned about the first positive case of COVID-19 on April 5. It said on March 14 it stopped all unauthorized visits to the facility.
Now, the facility said it is doing “full testing” through the Department of Health. But asked by News4Jax for the number of cases at the facility, the facility said it could not disclose the information.
It’s happening across the state: State officials – and providers – citing patient privacy law HIPAA as the reason for not releasing the names of elder care facilities with outbreaks of COVID-19 or providing the number of cases and deaths as a result of COVID-19 at each facility.
When Jacksonville senior care facility Camellia at Deerwood confirmed its first case of COVID-19, management sent a letter to residents informing them of the case, without revealing the name or any other patient information about the patient. They continued to send emails to families informing them of positive cases confirmed by the Florida Department of Health up until the 7th patient who tested positive.
The facility also confirmed the positive cases to media when it reached a fourth resident testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
The letter sent out to families from March 24 and on did not address whether the Florida Department of Health confirmed additional cases at the facility.
“The health and safety of our residents and associates remains our top priority. We also wish to preserve the privacy and dignity of each of our residents. We have asked the media to refer to the Florida Department of Health as the primary source for information related to COVID-19 in our area,” wrote Senior Executive Director Renea McGrath in a letter to families and residents.
The Florida Department of Health, and county branches of the agency, have refused to release the names of facilities with positive cases of COVID-19 or how many of those residents have died from complications of COVID-19. As of Monday evening, there were 1,090 cases in residents or staff of long-term care facilities in Florida, state data showed.
Brian Lee with Families for Better Care says HIPAA laws shouldn’t prevent states from telling families this information.
“We don’t know what’s going on because they have all together shut the doors, slammed them in our face so to speak,” Lee said. “I think states, it’s incumbent to protect the people, to protect nursing home residents, to protect all residents and the best way to protect them is to give them full disclosure on where these things are happening so that people can make these healthcare decisions for themselves."
According to a Florida News Service report, nursing homes are already seeking shelter from any lawsuits that might come out of the pandemic.
Florida’s largest medical association sent a letter last week asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to provide immunity from any civil or criminal liability for any harm alleged during the COVID-19 public emergency.
DeSantis said the state will more aggressively inspect nursing homes to detect patients and staff who are infected with the coronavirus. DeSantis said Monday he has ordered the Florida National Guard to create 10 teams that will visit long-term care facilities to test employees and residents for the virus, with a focus on hard-hit Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The Miami Herald filed a public records lawsuit seeking information from state officials about which elderly-care facilities in Florida had coronavirus cases. News4Jax has also filed a public records request in an effort to get more information about the number of COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities in Northeast Florida. As of Monday evening, there were 60 cases in Clay County long-term care facilities as well as 49 in Duval County and 21 in Bradford County.
For now, with limited information and no way to talk to her brother, Stewart is just hoping he’s doing alright.
“We are just hoping he knows and understands why we haven’t been there,” she said.