State working on plan to get ‘essential caregivers’ back into long-term care facilities

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The ongoing discussion of how to safely reopen Florida’s long-term care facilities to limited visitation continues.

On Friday, a task force appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis held a virtual meeting to start developing the next steps of how to allow family members to visit their loved ones.

The meeting went on for over an hour and a half, and the big focus was on essential caregivers.

It was agreed by state health and elder care officials that there’s an urgent need to get essential caregivers back inside long-term care facilities.

Essential caregivers are those people who before the pandemic visited their loved ones daily or regularly, but have been denied access now for five months.

Those caregivers say communication through phones or walls or windows isn’t enough, especially for patients with dementia.

On the governor’s task force, and a prominent voice in this afternoon’s meeting with state officials was Mary Daniel.

You may remember her as the Jacksonville woman who took a job as a dishwasher in her husband’s long-term care facility to spend permitted time with him.

She’s pushing for essential caregivers across the state like herself to be allowed regular access to their loved ones.

“My goal is to get us back to our loved ones. It’s been five months. And there are people dying today, right now,” Daniel said.

Daniel wants essential caregivers in first, even if it’s just one person. She says that’s better than no one.

At the meeting was Secretary Mary Mayhew of the Agency for Health Care Administration, who agreed there needs to be a clearly defined allowance for essential and compassionate caregivers.

Daniel said an essential caregiver designation is a starting point.

“If outdoor visits is all we got, then we’ll take outdoor visits to start. But one of the things we’re also looking for is a roadmap as to if we start with outdoor visits when can we get inside and what does that look like?” Daniel said.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services gave an overview today for what that could look like.

These are some of the current recommendations from CMS for states to consider before they reopen:

  • Facilities must go 28 days with no new Covid-19 cases
  • Nursing homes should have sufficient staff
  • They should also have an adequate supply of PPE and access to testing

Executive Director of the Florida Health Care Association, Emmett Reed, says facilities should have control over who visits and when.

“They need to be allowed the scheduling of visitors by appointment to maintain social distancing. They have to have the ability to limit the days or the hours and times that the visitors can come,” Reed said.

But Brian Lee, executive director of Families For Better Care, said allowing entrance into a facility without prior testing is dangerous.

“My jaw dropped to the floor,” Lee told The News Service of Florida when asked about the panel’s proposal. Lee’s organization advocates for residents of long-term care facilities.

DeSantis stopped visitation at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in March, as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the state.

As of Friday, there have been 3,886 COVID-19 related deaths of residents and staff reported in Florida long-term care facilities, including 92 in Duval County alone. And 10,437 long-term care residents have been infected with the virus, according to state health officials. The long-term care facilities include nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and intermediate-care facilities for the developmentally disabled.

One idea Gov. DeSantis has championed as an early step would be to allow family members who have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies to be permitted to visit, saying those antibodies give a certain level of immunity.

While the DeSantis administration boasts that it has made protecting Florida’s senior population its top priority, federal health care regulators have identified nearly 70 percent of the state’s nursing homes as having increased risks for COVID-19 infections.

The designation means that 471 facilities will be receiving COVID-19 rapid test kits in the coming weeks.

If the state works out a plan to open up long-term care facilities to some sort of outside visitation, it still has to figure out whether that visitation should be allowed statewide or leave it optional for facilities to decide for themselves to allow anyone in at all.

The task force agreed to meet again Tuesday to hash out details for a plan.

News Service of Florida contributed to this report

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