The number of reported COVID-19 infections at nursing homes and assisted living facilities has quintupled during the past week, increasing to 415 cases in 41 Florida counties, including 33 cases in Duval County.
Despite the increases, state health officials won’t say whether there is “community spread” in long-term care facilities of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
But while Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration remains tight-lipped, Live Oak City Council member Don Allen has seen the number of coronavirus cases in his rural county increase to 33, including 28 long-term care cases.
Allen told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that the long-term care cases in Suwannee County stem from the Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center in Live Oak, about two blocks from where he lives.
“This nursing home is in my district and so I consider these people my constituents, and somebody has got to care for them,” Allen said, explaining his decision to speak with the press about the nursing home. “I’ve spoken with employees there who want to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, but they are scared. They want the National Guard to come in there and clean the place up.”
Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center did not reply to requests for comment Tuesday. Neither did the Suwannee County Emergency Operations Center.
Allen said he has kept abreast of infections in the facility through extended family members and friends who have loved ones there. He also reviews state data.
And on Monday, Allen sat in his parked car outside the facility to watch the comings and goings.
“I worry about the people. I know them. I know those who work there,” Allen said. “I don’t want to be like the place in Seattle on TV every night where they start hauling them out of there, dead.”
As of Wednesday morning, Florida had 15,456 cases of novel coronavirus and 309 deaths. Duval County had 549 cases and 10 deaths. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can be particularly deadly to seniors and people with other health conditions. All of the confirmed COVID-19 patients who have died in Duval County were between the ages of 82 and 88.
Cases involving residents and staff members of long-term care facilities had jumped to 415 in 41 counties as of Wednesday morning, up from 69 cases in 11 counties a week ago.
Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew said federal infection-control survey teams visited long term care facilities in a handful of Florida counties last week. The teams were sent into what the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services identified as potential problem spots.
The DeSantis administration generally hasn’t been forthcoming with details about long-term care cases, including how many residents have died. Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesman Steve Murray, though, confirmed that one death involved a resident of the Alexander “Sandy” Nininger State Veterans' Nursing Home in Pembroke Pines.
In all, Murray said five veterans at the nursing home have tested positive for COVID-19.
AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson has called for the state to be more transparent with the public about the long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases. In a prepared statement, Johnson said the public needs “more information on which facilities are affected with cases and fatalities so families and the community at large can have peace of mind that they are being kept fully informed.”
The Agency for Health Care Administration did not reply to questions about community spread of the virus in long-term care facilities or steps the state is taking to assure family members that residents are being kept safe. Community spread generally means a disease is spreading but the source is not known.
The spread of COVID-19 among Florida seniors could be particularly deadly. The state has 691 nursing homes that provide 84,258 beds and another 3,000-plus licensed ALFs that offer 106,103 beds.
A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on a Seattle-area nursing home found that coronavirus “has the potential to result in high attack rates among residents, staff members and visitors” after being introduced into facilities.
AARP Florida also has asked the state to increase the amount of testing for the virus in residents and staff members.
“While AARP Florida is confident that senior officials of the state of Florida care deeply for older Floridians, we also know that more could be done to protect the frailest of the frail,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “We need significantly more testing of workers and residents to proactively contain the virus and adequate supplies of protective gear for frontline workers in these facilities to prevent its spread.”
At a news conference Tuesday in Tallahassee, DeSantis said the Department of Health had secured fast-acting COVID 19 tests from manufacturer Abbott Labs and that they will be sent to various areas of the state.
“This really gives you a lot of options, particularly when you have somebody in a nursing home,” DeSantis said, adding that the tests could be used on nursing home residents who have been transferred to hospitals.
There has been growing tension between hospitals and nursing homes about whether long-term care residents need to be tested for COVID-19 before being transferred from hospitals back to nursing homes.
“Obviously, if they are COVID positive in a nursing home, that could create an outbreak,” DeSantis said. “Now you have the ability to really know, and if you have somebody who may be sick but doesn’t have COVID, well then that is a much different situation.”