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Jacksonville couple’s story inspires governor to find solution for long-term care visitation

Mary Daniel took job as dishwasher to be able to see husband during pandemic

In this July 13, 2020 photo made available by Rosecastle at Deerwood assisted facility in Jacksonville, Fla,, Mary Daniels and her husband Steve, sit together in his room Monday, July 13, 2020. Mary went 114 days without seeing her husband who has early onset of Alzheimers, after the coronavirus forced the facility to ban all visitors. She took a job as a part-time dishwasher at the facility so that she is able to see her husband. (Rosecastle at Deerwood via AP)
In this July 13, 2020 photo made available by Rosecastle at Deerwood assisted facility in Jacksonville, Fla,, Mary Daniels and her husband Steve, sit together in his room Monday, July 13, 2020. Mary went 114 days without seeing her husband who has early onset of Alzheimers, after the coronavirus forced the facility to ban all visitors. She took a job as a part-time dishwasher at the facility so that she is able to see her husband. (Rosecastle at Deerwood via AP) (Rosecastle at Deerwood)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville woman’s creative workaround for the pandemic visitor ban at her husband’s assisted living facility landed her on the governor’s radar – and helped inspire the creation of a statewide task force to address the issue of isolation in long-term care facilities.

Mary Daniel took a job as a dishwasher at her husband’s memory care facility so that she could be part of the staff and permitted to spend time with him.

Daniel said her husband, Steve, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, lost 10 pounds and was incredibly anxious during their months-long separation. She attempted two window visits but said he didn’t understand why he couldn’t reach out and touch her.

RELATED: 72 days and counting: Jacksonville woman desperate to see husband who is fighting Alzheimer’s

About a month ago -- after 114 days apart -- she found a way to make it happen.

She joined the staff, and the pair had a sweet reunion.

“He saw me and said, ‘Mary?’ And we hugged and it was just like how I thought it would be,” Daniel said. “Just (to) hold him again after 114 days is just an amazing, amazing feeling.”

Their story caught the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has since appointed Daniel as a member of a newly announced state Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long-Term Care Facilities.

Joining Daniel will be:

  • Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration
  • Richard Prudom, secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs
  • Dr. Scott Rivkees, state surgeon general
  • Gail Matillo, president and CEO of Florida Senior Living Association
  • Emmett Reed, executive director of Florida Health Care Association
  • Michelle Branham, vice president of public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association

DeSantis banned visitation at long-term care facilities across the state in mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the state’s most vulnerable population.

RELATED: Long-term care facilities weighing how to safely allow visitors

“If you look nationwide, about 50% of the corona related fatalities have been in that tiny population of long-term care residents,” DeSantis said in a one-on-one interview with News4Jax (watch the full interview below). “So we’ve tried every step of the way to have maximum protection. At the same time, I have to recognize that comes at a cost.”

DeSantis said patients have passed away in nursing homes from other causes since the pandemic began and haven’t been able to have their loved ones with them at the end because of the visitation ban.

“The families were not able to go in and say goodbye and so that is something that is a human cost; it’s an emotional cost,” DeSantis said. “One of the things we’ve learned over this course is all the different policies have second order effects, and this has been one of the most, I think, heartbreaking.”

He said he was inspired by Daniel’s determination to find a way to spend quality time with her husband.

“A lot of families are like, ‘We just want to know when it’s going to end?’ Now, obviously, if I knew that I would set a date,” he said.

For now, though, the general ban must remain in place to protect the health of the state’s older citizens.

But the task force will be exploring options to allow limited visitation at long-term care facilities.

“We are going to find a way to get that human connection back,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to be doing things over the next couple of weeks to answer the call of people like Mary, and just say that the emotional toll on this is significant, the mental health toll is significant and that human connection is just something you can’t replace with a FaceTime or an iPad or even those window visits, which -- although those are better than nothing -- it’s not what we fully need.”

DeSantis has championed the idea of starting with those who have been tested and found to have COVID-19 antibodies. He said those with antibodies should be allowed to visit right away because they are unlikely to spread infection.

He said he looks forward to other ideas from the task force.


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