wjxt logo

Report finds Florida tied for highest COVID nursing home death rate in nation this summer

AARP report also points to concern of lagging vaccinations among residents, staff

According to the AARP, Florida leads the country in recent nursing home deaths linked to COVID-19. A new report shows the state is also lagging when it comes to vaccinations.
According to the AARP, Florida leads the country in recent nursing home deaths linked to COVID-19. A new report shows the state is also lagging when it comes to vaccinations.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus caused Florida to become a hotspot for COVID-19 in late July and August, the state’s nursing homes also felt the brunt.

Using federal data, the senior-advocacy group AARP released a report Wednesday that said 237 Florida nursing-home residents died of COVID-19 during a four-week period that ended Aug. 22 -- tied for the highest death rate in the nation.

Also, the report pointed to other indications of continuing struggles with COVID-19 in the state’s nursing homes, including lagging vaccination rates of workers and residents.

AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson said in a prepared statement that the numbers are a “heartbreaking reminder that the pandemic is not over” and urged people to get vaccinated.

“These sadly predictable data trends are also preventable,” Johnson said. “Our most vulnerable residents deserve to be protected from this devastating disease. The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get vaccinated.”

With COVID-19 particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying health conditions, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have drawn heavy attention throughout the pandemic. For months, visitors were barred from entering nursing homes to try to prevent the spread of the virus, and Gov. Ron DeSantis made vaccinating nursing-home residents a priority after shots became available in December.

As an indication of the toll, a Florida Department of Health report in early June said 11,531 residents and staff members of long-term care facilities had died of COVID-19. The department subsequently stopped releasing such information.

AARP releases periodic COVID-19 reports about all states, using data that nursing homes submit to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The information is compiled by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio.

The report released Wednesday showed that Florida during the four weeks that ended Aug. 22 had a COVID-19 death rate for nursing-home residents --- 0.36 per 100 residents --- that was tied with Alaska for the highest in the nation. The report also said 13 Florida nursing-home staff members died of COVID-19 during the period.

Florida also had among the lowest rates in the nation of fully vaccinated nursing-home workers and residents during the period. The report said 48.5 percent of nursing-home staff members were fully vaccinated, with only Louisiana lower at 47.9 percent. It said 73.6 percent of Florida nursing-home residents were fully vaccinated, with only Nevada and Arizona having lower rates.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus caused Florida to become a hotspot for COVID-19 in late July and August, the state’s nursing homes also felt the brunt.
As the delta variant of the coronavirus caused Florida to become a hotspot for COVID-19 in late July and August, the state’s nursing homes also felt the brunt.

Carrie Farmer’s mother is in a Noth Florida nursing home.

“She went back and forth to the emergency room about five or six times with COVID,” Farmer said.

Farmer’s mother is vaccinated and is currently on oxygen, but Farmer finds the data from AARP concerning.

“This is scary,” she said.

Famer said her mother’s facility is newer and is hiring for more staff, though Farmer said she was made aware that some staff tested positive.

“I know that she had a contact from a nurse or, you know, another resident there because I hadn’t been in there to see her for a while, and she’s having other visitors, so it’s very concerning,” Farmer said. “I just wish that we had more answers to it, whether it be the booster shot if that showed that it would work, or I don’t know.”

The Biden administration in August announced that it will require nursing homes that participate in the Medicaid and Medicare programs to have fully vaccinated staffs. The White House last week expanded the vaccination mandate to other types of health-care facilities, such as hospitals.

The Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest nursing-home industry group, expressed initial concerns about a vaccination requirement that would only apply to nursing homes because of the potential that it could lead to workers leaving for other jobs. But the association indicated last week that expanding the requirement to other types of facilities helped ease concerns.

“We appreciate the administration and CMS (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) for listening to the concerns about a federal mandate that only applied to nursing home staff,” Emmett Reed, the association’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “A broadened vaccination policy will help protect our residents who often interact with other health care professionals for their care needs. We know the vaccine is the safest way to protect our residents, and we support efforts that will help get more people vaccinated.”

The Florida Health Care Association released the following statement on the AARP report:

Florida’s nursing centers have put forth tremendous efforts to keep both their residents and staff safe since the beginning of the pandemic, and they continue to do so. They have maintained their infection control protocols, and staff are still wearing masks; are conducting regular testing and everyday screening before entry (including taking temperatures); and are able to mitigate spread through the use of COVID isolation wings. Facilities are better managing this virus and its impact on residents and staff, and the data is already showing a downward trend in cases. In the week of August 29, cases among residents and staff declined, and today, more than 98% of residents and staff in our facilities remain COVID-free.

Our centers are doing everything in their power to encourage staff to get vaccinated, including offering incentives, and staff vaccination rates are improving, if more slowly than we would prefer. Much of the hesitancy we’re seeing in staff is similar to what is seen in our communities, where a portion of the population remains hesitant to get vaccinated. We believe this situation will improve based on President Biden’s directive to make vaccinations a requirement among nursing center staff.

It’s easy for AARP and others to look on from afar – with no direct involvement in the day-to-day operations of a nursing center – and cast judgment. Perhaps instead of producing alarmist reports and reaching conclusions, they should try offering real-world solutions, such as initiatives that will help increase vaccination rates in our communities and encourage individuals to seek a career in long-term care to help address our workforce shortages.


About the Authors:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.

A Florida girl and North Carolina A&T SU grad who thrives in breaking news.