With nursing homes in Florida shut to visitors over the past two months, Gov. Ron DeSantis hopes the state can soon let families reunite.
On March 14, the Governor banned all visitation at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in an effort to limit COVID-19 infections among the at-risk population. DeSantis said that early action and others were necessary and successfully limited the number of cases and deaths in those facilities.
But after two months of restrictions, residents are eager to interact with their families and other residents. Allowing visitation could be a “psychological boost” to residents who haven’t seen family during the pandemic.
“We’ve now been two months where visitors have not been allowed at these facilities,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the Capitol, where he was joined by Florida Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees and Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew. “My view has been that I want to get to ‘yes’ on that. I just want to be able to know that we have procedures in place that if someone goes to visit their mother, that two weeks later we are not going to have 50 infections roil a nursing home or a long-term care facility.”
However, that plan could be weeks or months away, and the Governor said he doesn’t want to put a timetable on the plan or give false hope. The state will err on the side of caution to prevent an outbreak in those facilities.
Plans would likely require visitors to use personal protective equipment and could involve using 45-minute diagnostic tests to clear visitors to enter facilities.
However, access to those testing devices, mainly reserved for first responders and medical professionals, has been one factor already preventing the state from lifting the ban. Without enough tests for the nearly 700 nursing homes and more than 3,100 assisted living facilities, the state would have to unfairly choose which facilities get tests and therefore are allowed visitors.
As of Wednesday, more than 42% of the 1,827 COVID-19 deaths in Florida stemmed from cases contracted in long-term care facilities. Of the 776 deaths tied to the facilities, 376 of them involved facilities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Twenty-five percent of the state’s 67 counties have facilities with at least 11 long-term care deaths.
DeSantis’ comments about visitation came as his administration moves to increase the numbers of nursing home residents and staff members being tested for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The disease is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions.
The administration in recent days issued a pair of emergency rules that require all nursing homes and assisted living facilities to allow the Department of Health into the buildings to test staff members and residents. The rules require that all facilities make their staff available for testing. Testing for residents, though, remains optional. The Governor acknowledged at the news conference that some residents at DOH-targeted facilities have not consented to the testing.
Steve Bahmer, president and CEO of long-term care facility advocate group Leading Age Florida, raised the issue of allowing visitors this morning with the Governor.
“We’ve heard from members who are watching families be torn apart by their inability to connect with residents in assisted living or a nursing home environment,” Bahmer said. “Again, a necessary decision, but a very challenging one.”
Facilities have developed creative ways for residents to stay in touch with families and to maintain social interactions, including playing with technology, internal television networks and hallway and balcony bingo.
“If you can think of it, they’ve done it to try to make sure the residents are as mobile as they could be and that families were able to be in touch with them,” Bahmer said, “Because we are acutely aware of the profound effects of social isolation, especially with potential mental health results as well.”
As of Tuesday, 482 long-term care facilities have active COVID-19 cases with 1,604 positive residents and 1,840 positive staff members. As of Wednesday, 776 residents and staff have died of the disease.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.