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'There was an outbreak’: Rural Florida nursing home overwhelmed by COVID-19

The number of staff members at Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation infected with the coronavirus cases has continued to soar, reaching a high of 30 on Friday.
Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation
Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation [ Twitter ]
Published Apr. 10, 2020|Updated Apr. 10, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A nursing home in the rural North Florida town of Live Oak has become a virtual hotspot as at least 51 people have tested positive for COVID-19, including 30 members of the staff.

For the last 10 days, the number of staff members at Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation infected with the coronavirus cases has continued to soar, reaching a high of 30 on Friday with the results of more tests from the 180-bed facility still pending.

On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Health sent in two staff members it called its “strike team” to investigate. The conclusion, said Gov. Ron DeSantis: “There was an outbreak there emanating from staff members.”

“Hopefully, they are finally doing something,’’ said Don Allen, a member of the Live Oak City Council who lives down the road from the nursing home. “Nobody was doing anything but counting.”

Allen, who has friends who have family members who are residents at the facility, alerted a Jacksonville television reporter to the situation on Monday because, as the numbers rose he had a sense “nobody seemed to care.”

He said that staff has been working 12-hour shifts and is reaching the breaking point.

“At some point they won’t have enough staff to run the place,’’ he said, adding that the local hospital is scheduled to close at the end of the month and the next closest hospital is 30 minutes away in Lake City.

Allen said he is doubtful that all staff members who have tested positive are in 14-day self-quarantine as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I can see them getting off work and going to get a loaf of bread at the convenience store across the street,’’ he said. “It’s not like they’re isolating. I may be totally out of line, but it looks bad to me.”

Neither the administrator of the nursing home, nor its owner, Pensacola-based Gulf Coast Facilities, responded to requests for comment.

51 of 58 cases in the county

Sheriff Sam St. John, head of the Suwannee County Emergency Management Center, said he has not been asked by health officials to assist in the response or investigation.

The county reported 58 confirmed cases in Suwannee County as of Friday morning, the newest of which were a 63-year-old female, a 22-year-old female, a 26-year-old female, and a 41-year-old female. “All the cases are connected to an existing case,’’ the county said on its emergency operations Facebook page.

The Agency for Health Care Administration has reported 629 positive COVID-19 cases in Florida at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Unlike states such as Minnesota, Florida has refused to tell family members of residents or the public in which facilities those cases are, citing privacy concerns.

Suwannee County, which has a population of just over 44,000, has 6% of all cases in Florida long-term care facilities. By contrast, Miami-Dade County has a population of nearly 3 million and its 92 cases make up 15% of the total, according to the Florida Emergency Management data.

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“This is a virus that I think presents a specific danger to elderly populations,’’ DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville on Friday. “And so we’ve done things like puts strong regulations in place, limit visitation, and require that hospital staff wear personal protective equipment, including masks, when they’re interacting with the residents. And I think by and large in the state of Florida, the folks who’ve been in charge of these facilities have worked very hard at protecting their residents.”

Industry asks not to be blamed

The industry, however, is concerned that it may be blamed for not doing enough. Last week, a trade association that represents the long-term-care industry, the Florida Health Care Association, asked DeSantis to grant its operators immunity from civil or criminal liability “sustained as a result of an act or omission in the course of arranging for or providing health care services” during the COVID-19 crisis.

Brian Lee, executive director for Families for Better Care, an advocacy organization for elders in long-term-care facilities, said the facilities don’t deserve the protection.

“They didn’t staff. They ignored training. They didn’t stock up on personal protective equipment and 65 percent have been tagged with infectious disease violations,’’ he said.

He said the state’s failure to disclose the homes with staff or residents that have tested positive for COVID-19 hurts families and benefits the providers.

“They don’t have to be cloak and dagger about it,’’ he said. “In fact, this shroud of secrecy breeds anxiety and deep concern for the families.”

He said that recent guidance by federal regulators concluded that in an emergency, if a healthcare facility is acting in good faith, it can disclose information to families using telehealth tools that otherwise may be protected by federal health care privacy protections.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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