DeSantis deploys National Guard as Florida’s elder-care centers face COVID-19 ‘nightmare’

Gov. Ron DeSantis is enlisting the National Guard in the fight against the coronavirus, bolstering strike teams in an effort to bring testing to hundreds of elder care facilities. As of Monday, 93 facilities in Florida had at least one resident test positive.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference last week.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference last week. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published April 14, 2020|Updated April 14, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged Monday that the scope of the COVID-19 problem in the state’s elder-care facilities is becoming more dire, and he said he wants the Florida National Guard to fortify “strike teams” conducting tests on residents and staffers at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

DeSantis said teams have already been sent into 93 facilities where residents have tested positive.

But a surge of testing is needed, he said Monday, especially to target asymptomatic carriers of the virus among staff. To accomplish that, he is having the National Guard expand its mission in the fight against the coronavirus, bolstering the strike teams in an effort to bring testing to hundreds of additional facilities.

“Today we are raising the bar even further,’’ the governor said at a news conference in Tallahassee. “I am directing the Florida National Guard to create more strike teams to significantly ramp up testing in long term care facilities.”

He said four-person medical teams will start by visiting every elder-care facility in South Florida that hasn’t already been covered and give COVID-19 tests to “all willing individuals in each facility, both staff and residents.”

He said they will start with 10 Rapid Emergency Support Teams, or REST teams, and expand the number of facilities as teams “as long as we have enough” test kits and personal protective equipment.

DeSantis said the testing will focus on staff, noting that they are more likely to be spreading the virus than residents since the state has curtailed all visitors to the facilities.

DeSantis’ directive came with an admission: Anybody can be a carrier.

“We don’t know how many people are asymptomatic with it, and we don’t know what percentage of the spreaders are asymptomatic,’’ he said. At many nursing homes they found that many staff were following the protocols. “It’s just somebody didn’t show symptoms.”

Although DeSantis acknowledged the severity of the infection rate at facilities that house the state’s most at-risk population, he continued to refuse to identify which nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities have had residents and staff who tested positive for COVID-19.

When pressed by reporters Monday, neither DeSantis nor Surgeon General Scott Rivkees would say why they have not been forthcoming with those details.

For weeks as the number of elderly COVID-19 cases has risen, the governor’s office and the Florida Department of Health have refused to identify the facilities where staff or residents have tested positive, leaving families scrambling to get details about their loved ones.

“It’s a family’s worst nightmare,” said William Dean, a North Miami Beach attorney who frequently sues nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He said his office has been fielding a surge of referrals from other attorneys, connecting him with people who have family members in the facilities but can’t visit them.

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“We get hysterical phone calls saying, ‘My loved one is dead, and I don’t know what they died from.’ ”

In an effort to force the state to divulge the names of all elder-care facilities that have had a positive test for the coronavirus, the Miami Herald has prepared a public records lawsuit against the state.

On Saturday, the Herald reported that after the governor’s general counsel called a representative of the Miami Herald’s law firm seeking to quash the lawsuit, the law firm, Holland & Knight, withdrew from the case. The Herald identified another firm, Thomas & LoCicero, and is continuing to bring the suit forward, joined by other news media outlets.

In the past two weeks, the state has watched as alarming numbers of people have tested positive in long-term care facilities in areas that previously had shown few cases.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 962 positive cases in Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities, including parts of the state that previously had not been considered hot spots.

In the small rural town of Live Oak, one nursing home reported that at least 51 residents and staff have tested positive, and in Tallahassee, 33 residents and three staff members tested positive at an assisted living facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

Last week, residents and staff of the Tallahassee Developmental Center were tested en masse, the Tallahassee Democrat reported on Monday. Kim Faustin, the center’s chief operating officer, told the Democrat that of the 33 patients who have tested positive, 22 are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

Because the state will not release records about what percentage of the staff and residents around the state have been tested, it is impossible to know how widespread the disease is in these communities.

As testing of staff increases, so will the number of cases, said Mary Mayhew, secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administration.

"What is likely happening in these facilities is asymptomatic staff,’’ she said. “These are people’s homes and their caregivers are like their family and they are coming and going just like family members in a private home, and we know that’s the greatest risk.”

DeSantis said the strike team includes an infection prevention expert, local county health department staff, regional staff from the Agency for Health Care Administration, nursing staff, and an advanced life support ambulance.

Because of its high population of elder adults, who are the age group most vulnerable to the virus, the elder-care homes are particularly at risk in the event of an outbreak.

Kristen Knapp spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, the industry trade group that represents the state’s 700 nursing homes, said they support the aggressive focus on testing at their facilities.

“Nursing homes don’t have access to tests so we welcome the National Guard coming in and testing our residents and staff,’’ she said. We can’t take our residents and do drive-by tests and it’s difficult for our staff as well.’’

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