31 coronavirus cases reported in outbreak at Clay County elder-care facility

Facility’s parent company reports positive tests for COVID-19 at 88 of its 171 facilities

A Clay County long-term care facility has disclosed an outbreak of novel coronavirus impacting over 30 residents and staff, a week after refusing to acknowledge the extent of its infections.

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – A Clay County long-term care facility has disclosed an outbreak of novel coronavirus impacting over 30 residents and staff, a week after refusing to acknowledge the extent of its infections.

There are at least 31 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents and employees of Heartland Health Care Center in Orange Park, a 120-bed facility located on Wells Road, according to data released by the facility’s parent company, HCR ManorCare.

A company spokesperson said that figure does not include any patients who have died or left the facility.

“We are not including cases if they are outside of the center – these are patient results only since in most cases, employees go to (the Department of Health) testing site or their primary care provider for testing,” the spokesperson said. “Our focus is on treating those in-house.”

Tracy Woods told News4Jax she learned Wednesday that her 79-year-old father, John, died after contracting COVID-19 earlier this month at the Orange Park facility.

“I’m really numb,” Woods said.

She said there’s still a lot she doesn’t understand as she comes to grips with the sudden loss of her father, who was affectionately known as “J.” She said he was recovering from a wound on his foot and was about to start rehabilitation when he tested positive.

RELATED: State releases list of facilities with COVID-19 cases

The company’s disclosure follows the Florida Department of Health’s recent decision to publish a list of elder-care facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19. The health department and healthcare providers, including Heartland, previously resisted releasing that information, citing patient privacy laws.

Multiple families turned to the I-TEAM earlier this month, saying they had been notified by the facility that their loved ones had tested positive for COVID-19, but their attempts to learn more details went unanswered. “We are not getting the full picture at all," Gailya Stewart noted after learning her brother was in isolation.

As News4Jax previously reported, the long-term care facility said it learned of its first positive test April 5. Unauthorized visits to the facility have been suspended since March 14.

The disclosure also comes as the county contends with a growing number of cases in its elder-care facilities.

RELATED: Clay among Florida’s top counties with COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities

Clay County has the seventh-most positive tests linked to long-term care facilities in Florida. Of the county’s 265 total cases, nearly half (123) have been identified as residents or staff of these facilities, which also account for seven of Clay’s 12 virus-related deaths.

The problem isn’t unique to Clay County, either. As of Friday, 281 of Florida’s 1,012 coronavirus-related deaths were linked to long-term care facilities. In other words, one in four of the people who have died statewide have been either a resident or employee of one of these facilities.

“Long-term care facilities are uniquely vulnerable to this virus spreading,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference Tuesday. “And so we focused very intently on this from the very beginning. We’re going to continue to do this and we’re also looking at other things that may make a difference.”

Lack of transparency

Despite being one of Florida’s leading counties with coronavirus cases in elder-care facilities, the officials in charge of Clay County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic have been resistant to transparency.

John Ward, emergency management director for Clay County, was firm on that point. "One thing that will not be released and will not be discussed as the state manages this information is the numbers that are at each facility or if there have been any fatalities at each facility,” Ward said.

Heather Hoffman, administrator of the Clay County Health Department, said Wednesday that she did not see the value in making public the number of confirmed cases and deaths at each elder-care facility.

RELATED: Clay County won’t release case & death tallies at long-term care facilities

“This is the first time you have actually been able to get facility information," Hoffman said. “We don’t see the point in telling you if it’s one case or three at this point. It’s not going to change the situation.”

Not everyone’s convinced. Brian Lee, with Families for Better Care, said getting more information out there makes a difference for families who would otherwise be left in the dark.

“Knowing the severity of the outbreak helps families make better care decision for their loved ones," Lee said. “For example, if it’s one person who is a caregiver and is on leave, self-isolating at home, that’s much different than if it’s five residents who are continuing to live in the facility. Safety protocols are different. Potential for spread is different, depending on whose been exposed and the number of people affected.”

Not an isolated problem

HCR ManorCare operates 171 facilities nationwide, including 21 in Florida and two in Georgia, according to the company’s website. Data released by the company shows half of its facilities (88) have had residents and staff test positive for COVID-19.

“Our centers acted early to restrict access to the facility, currently require universal masking for our direct caregivers, provide isolation units for those patients or residents with or suspected to have novel coronavirus, and implemented infection control processes based on the CDC’s recommendations,” the company said in a statement posted on its website.

RELATED: ‘We are not getting the full picture,’ family says of long-term care facility

The company classifies its facilities as Tier 1, 2 or 3: Tier 1 facilities have zero positive tests, Tier 2 facilities have tests pending and Tier 3 facilities have at least one confirmed case. According to the company, safety measures are in place at each facility, regardless of its classification.

These safety measures include screening all admissions, restricting access to visitors except in extraordinary circumstances, and requiring everyone to wear masks on site. In Tier 2 facilities, new admissions are placed in private rooms, and Tier 3 facilities have designated airborne isolation units.

The company intends to keep families apprised of the situation at each facility by phone and mail, along with its website which it said will be updated twice a week.

“Our efforts will continue until the pandemic is contained. We are in very close communication with our medical director, clinical support team, and local and state health officials about the appropriate steps to serve the best interests of our patients, residents, employees and visitors,” the company said.

View the company’s latest data below:

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.