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New Committee To Look At How To Get Visitors Into Florida’s Assisted Living Facilities

DeSantis speaking and using his hands, Casey DeSantis looking over at him, and a sign reading off social distancing rules behind them while they sit at a table.
Sky Lebron
Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis held a media roundtable to announce a special committee in Jacksonville Tuesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he is creating a special committee to look into how families can meet face to face with their loved ones at assisted living facilities. 

The governor and First Lady Casey DeSantis held a roundtable discussion at ElderSource in Jacksonville Tuesday afternoon, alongside state health officials. 

The group was also joined by Mary Daniel, a Jacksonville woman who recently made national headlines for taking a job as a dishwasher at the assisted living facility where her husband lived so she could see him in person. 

The governor is appointing Daniel to the special committee.

“I sit here representing hundreds of thousands of caregivers,” Daniel said. “It's not just me. I represent all of them, and we are desperate, and we are lonely, and we are hopeless and helpless. And I get to represent us with this great team of people here, and I am absolutely confident that we will come up with ideas.” 

Families have been barred from visiting their loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living facilities since March, when a statewide mandate was put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the older, vulnerable population. 

Although nursing homes offer ways for families to communicate with the loved ones, such as video calling through tablets, Daniel said that isn’t enough.

“They need a hug from us, not a picture of me on FaceTime. Not me at the window. They need us. And so, I like the small steps and I don't mean to disrespect them in any way, but I don't want anybody to be misunderstood about why I'm here,” she said. 

Daniel said she has spoken to many families going through a similar situation, who are desperate to get back inside a long term care facility. 

“They are feeling a sense of urgency,” Daniel said. “They want to do it safely. They want to be like the staff, [where] they will be tested, they’ll wear PPE [personal protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves].” 

Daniel also mentioned the “essential caregiver” rule used in Minnesota and Indiana since June. The rule allows family members who took care of their loved ones at the long-term care facilities at least twice a week prior to the pandemic to once again enter the facilities at scheduled times. 

“You're not around any other residents,” Daniel said. “It's one-on-one time. It's working very well in these two states. In 14 other states, they're doing outdoor visits so that you are taking the patient outside the residence. So you're not worrying about infecting the building.”

DeSantis said he understands the current restrictions come at an emotional cost. 

“We've had residents of long term care facilities that have passed away for things other than coronavirus, of course. This is a part of life, but throughout the last four and a half months, they have not had the ability to have family members visiting them. They've not had that type of human contact, which really, really makes a difference to people who are in those conditions,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis said he would be willing to loosen restrictions for people who have COVID-19 antibodies, meaning they had previously had the virus and their body had launched a defensive attack. 

The governor said there are new point-of-care tests coming to the state that can deliver results within 30 minutes, but he doesn’t know how many will actually get to assisted living facilities. Other tests with longer turnarounds won’t be helpful when going to a facility.

“To do a lab-based test for a family member, you're not going to get the results back soon enough for it to really matter, so the point-of-care [test] gives a good window,” DeSantis said. 

The special state committee, which includes Secretary of the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration Mary Mayhew, will solicit feedback from families and come up with proposals to give to the state. There was no timeline set. 

“We’re gonna be moving immediately. Now, obviously, it's gonna take a little time to tee up some action items, but I think we do have an action item teed up with the antibodies,” DeSantis said. 

DeSantis also mentioned that all staff at assisted living facilities have been getting tested bi-weekly since June, when a state mandate was put in place. 

Asked if the employee testing will be increased alongside the spike in cases statewide in recent weeks, DeSantis said he’s satisfied with the current requirement.  

“I think at the end of the day when you have over 200,000 [employees], just the logistics involved with testing that many people across 4,000 facilities is very difficult,” DeSantis said. “And so I think that it's a good screening device. I think it has been effective. We've been able to identify staff, isolate staff and prevent it from spreading for the residents.” 

The latest data from the state show there have been 64 COVID-19 deaths in Duval County long-term care, and 3,155 deaths statewide as of August 2 .  

Sky Lebron can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at@SkylerLebron.

Former WJCT News reporter