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Nursing homes screening visitors for coronavirus risk to protect elderly

Some Tampa Bay nursing homes are pushing for Skype visits
Tampa mayor Jane Castor spoke about visiting nursing homes to pass out fact sheets on Tuesday, March 10
Tampa mayor Jane Castor spoke about visiting nursing homes to pass out fact sheets on Tuesday, March 10 [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Mar. 10, 2020

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Philip McCollum has watched as a Washington nursing home battles an outbreak of coronavirus that has resulted in 19 deaths at the facility.

It helps him learn what he should and shouldn’t do if the same ever happens at the nursing home he runs in Clearwater. But for now, he’s trying to prevent the virus getting into the facility, Pacifica Senior Living Belleair.

People in the nursing home industry in Florida are rethinking how they run visitations now that coronavirus cases are popping up across the state. The virus puts the elderly at disproportionate risk.

The coronavirus fatality rate for people in their 80s is six times the overall fatality rate. It’s four times as high for people in their 70s. Florida has the largest share of residents 70 and older in the nation.

Now, nursing homes are setting up screening questions and discouraging unnecessary visitors. They also are being encouraged to ask visitors questions about their travel history and potential symptoms, said Kristen Knapp, the director of communications with the Florida Health Care Association.

“We are certainly doing our due diligence to try to keep our residents safe, and our staff,” Knapp said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services advises nursing homes to screen visitors and reduce risk. New guidelines would stop large groups, like church groups or school volunteers, from visiting, Knapp said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said nursing homes in the city won’t restrict visitors unless they’re sick, but they will use screening questions to make sure nobody has traveled to a coronavirus hotbed. She’s also open to taking visitors’ temperatures at the front door.

Despite the recommendations from the Florida Health Care Association, Knapp said it’s not set in stone. If a patient is in hospice care and family wants to see them, for instance, the association will help. The limit on visits isn’t a directive, but a guideline.

“Our goal is to prevent the virus from coming into our nursing homes,” she said.

The Florida Health Care Association represents 82 percent of the state’s nursing homes, according to their website.

McCollum, the executive director at Pacifica Senior Living Belleair, said the center routinely asks visitors not to come if they’ve been sick, even before coronavirus began spreading.

“I think that as of right now we’re seeing just as many family members coming to visit as normal,” McCollum said.

At Mease Manor in Dunedin, a retirement community, visitors will be asked to fill out a questionnaire that will include things about travel and how they are feeling. They could be denied entry based on their answers, said CEO Kent McRae. In addition, staff may ask people coming through the front door who don’t look well if staff can take their temperatures, McRae said.

McRae said his organization plans to limit visitation for residents in continuing care. Beginning Wednesday, he said, they will ask loved ones of those residents to “refrain from coming and allow us to create other avenues for them to visit, via Skype, via email and so forth.”

McRae said if there are exceptional circumstances “like end of life,” the facility will work to create an environment where family can visit while limiting risk.

“We’re doing it in everyone’s best interest,” McRae said. He said he suspects some will see the measures as “a real inconvenience,” but he said the facility is trying to take direction and follow guidelines from the CDC and others.

Tampa Bay Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Allison Ross contributed to this report

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