JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Families of Florida residents in long-term care facilities who have been unable to visit their loved ones for nearly five months might finally get a reprieve.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday during a roundtable discussion in Jacksonville that he’s launching a task force to examine safe ways to reopen LTC facilities for limited visitation.
DeSantis banned visitors at nursing homes and other LTC facilities in mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic first made its way to Florida.
The effort was an attempt to protect the most vulnerable population of Floridians who were in one of the more dangerous environments for spreading the disease because of their close quarters, DeSantis said.
But the lengthy ban has taken its toll, and families have voiced concerns about the mental health of their loved ones, themselves and even the staff at the facilities -- who often rely on visiting loved ones to assist with some basic elements of care.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to not only protect folks from the virus abut also address some of the serious emotional damage that has been done by our countermeasures to the virus,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a roundtable discussion at ElderSource in Jacksonville.
Numbers released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Health highlight the need to continue protections for older Floridians in long-term care. According to the data, 5,803 LTC facility residents have tested positive for COVID-19 -- that’s about 4.16% of the 139,637 total residents.
The number of residents testing positive has been fairly stable for the past week after rising for much of July.
Out of 196,058 total staff members at long-term care facilities around the state, 5,879 have currently tested positive for COVID-19. That’s just under 3% of the staff population. The percentage of staff testing positive has been dropping over the last two weeks.
Regular bi-weekly staff testing is one measure Florida implemented to help protect LTC residents.
One solution under consideration is to also regularly test caregivers who come to visit a facility or to even give limited visitation specifically to dedicated essential caregivers who visited their loved ones regularly before the pandemic.
Caregiver advocate Mary Daniel said families will follow whatever rules are set and do whatever they’re asked if it means they can see their loved ones. Daniel is a prime example: she took a job as a dishwasher at her husband’s long-term care facility in Jacksonville so she could be part of the staff and permitted to visit with him.
“Whatever it takes. We will be tested every day. We’ll follow whatever rule they give us. The governor even mentioned sometimes being in the same room but 6 feet apart would be very difficult, but we would do it,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s husband has Alzheimer’s and she visited him twice outside a window at his facility before she realized she needed a different approach.
“He cried the entire time, and I made up my mind then I would not do that anymore. It’s a difficult decision for a wife to make that I would rather have him not see me then go through that,” Daniel said, explaining that her husband did not understand why she was on the other side of the glass.
After she found a way to see him -- and her story went viral -- Daniel has now been tapped to be the face of DeSantis’ push to reopen LTC facilities for loved ones.
“We are desperate. We are lonely. We are helpless,” Daniel said.
Also part of Tuesday’s roundtable discussion and the governor’s task force were Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew, Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom and Michelle Branham with the Alzheimer’s Association.
DeSantis said the group will solicit feedback from families and propose steps to move forward. He said no one wants policies that lead to massive infections.
“But a way forward would put a lot of people at ease knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
One idea DeSantis championed as a first step would be to allow family members who have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies to be permitted to visit, saying the antibodies confirm a certain level of immunity.
Mayhew said she’s proud of the work Florida has done to “stand guard at the door” for those most vulnerable to the virus but she’s also seen the consequences of the lack of human interaction and daily family connections for patients.
“We’ve seen a lot in five months. We have an opportunity to create a framework to do this safely with leadership and engagement from Mary (Daniel) and others who firsthand have seen what the facilities are capable of,” Mayhew said. “Together, I am confident that we can create an approach that stays true to our goal of protecting our elderly but supports what we all know is so critically important.”