TALLAHASSEE — Florida will loosen restrictions on visits to long term care facilities, a change Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that may have major consequences for the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Floridians have been allowed to visit loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living facilities with some restrictions since Sept. 1. But now, DeSantis said, general visitors are allowed to meet with residents outdoors even if a COVID-19 case has been recently reported in the facility. General indoor visits are still banned within 14 days of a staffer or resident testing positive, DeSantis said.
Those the state deems “compassionate caregivers” can visit loved ones indoors whether a facility has a positive case or not. DeSantis also announced Florida will remove social distancing restrictions for those caregivers. Family members will be allowed to hug loved ones when they visit these facilities.
Finally, there will no longer be restrictions on children visiting the facilities, and the number of visitors allowed at one time will be left up to individual homes, DeSantis said.
In announcing these new policies, the governor made the same argument he’s made for months: lockdowns are ineffective, and they’re bad for people’s health.
“There have been instances in which, some of these (places) had no visitors for a long time," DeSantis said during a news conference in Fort Myers. “And even locally, there was even other restrictions in the community. You still had outbreaks.”
The announcement came on a day when Florida reported 5,558 new cases of COVID-19, the highest number of new cases since August 15.
Although the state’s rate of positive cases has also crept up in recent days, Thursday’s reported number of infections was partially the result of a spike in reported tests.
Officials hope the new guidelines, combined with the state’s distribution of millions of rapid coronavirus testing kits to long term care facilities will facilitate a return to normalcy. But questions remain about Florida’s testing strategy at these facilities.
For instance, in September, the state stopped requiring — and funding — the periodic testing of employees who work at Florida’s assisted living facilities. Earlier this month, the state began to supply rapid testing kits to many of those facilities to help them keep up a rigorous testing regimen.
But on a call last week with assisted living facility administrators, officials cautioned that facilities must meet federal regulations in order to process test results.
“The requirement to do a point-of-care test does require that you have a lab license or waiver,” Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the Agency for Health Care Administration, said on the call.
Many assisted living facilities do not have such licenses, making testing more difficult at a time the governor is now allowing more access to visitors than at any point during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, DeSantis has said his priority is the protection of long term care facility residents. He banned all visitors in to the facilities in March, and sent millions of pieces of personal protective equipment to the homes soon thereafter.
“If you just continue working with these long term care facilities, that really does seem to be where most of this ballgame is,” DeSantis said in May.
Even so, Florida has struggled to keep the virus out of the homes. A recent dashboard from the AARP showed that Florida has had more nursing home cases and deaths than the national average.
As of Thursday, 16,470 people had reportedly died from the virus in Florida. State data showed that 6,415, or about 39 percent of those who died were staff or residents of long term care facilities.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau Staff Writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.