SEMINOLE — Three nursing home residents have died of the coronavirus in an outbreak that has afflicted Freedom Square of Seminole, a sprawling retirement community that has seen dozens hospitalized because of the virus, officials said.
A 74-year-old man died April 10. Then an 84-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man both died Friday, according to medical examiner records.
Hours after Friday’s deaths, ambulances started lining up outside the Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation nursing home.
State, local and company officials agreed to shut down the facility and evacuate the 39 remaining residents to local hospitals, according to the Pinellas County administrator’s office.
What happened in this nursing home reveals how quickly COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can spread in a facility filled with those most vulnerable to it. In a span of eight days, from the first confirmed diagnoses to Friday’s mass evacuation, a total of 95 residents were removed from the facility and three have now died.
But the outbreak didn’t become public until Wednesday, after the first death and first wave of evacuations. The pandemic has hit senior care centers across the country particularly hard. But in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to disclose which of those facilities have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“We extend our sincere condolences to the families and patients ... and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time,” Freedom Square Executive director Michael Mason said in a statement sent Friday to the Tampa Bay Times. “Over this past week Freedom Square began an orderly and voluntary transfer of Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation patients who were asymptomatic but potentially exposed, symptomatic, or who had confirmed cases of COVID-19 to three local hospitals for treatment and monitoring.”
Inside the nursing home, nurses told the Times they didn’t know how quickly the virus had spread inside the facility — but they knew the company wasn’t ready for it.
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Freedom Square of Seminole is a retirement community of more than 700 residents at 7800 Liberty Lane. The Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation nursing home is one of several buildings on its campus.
A nurse who has worked in all of the buildings there said the company has not been forthcoming in sharing information with employees, patients and their relatives.
Employees did not know about the gravity of the outbreak until the media reported the transfer of patients late Wednesday, said the nurse, who requested anonymity out of fear of job loss.
“They kept information from the patients and families,” the nurse said. “They have not told us anything about this until it blew up.”
Freedom Square, the nurse said, has lacked masks and gowns for weeks and many nurses and certified nursing assistants have resorted to buying their own equipment — if they can find it. Some employees are also wearing homemade or cloth masks because the company is not supplying N95 masks, the nurse said.
“You have to go to Walgreens,” the nurse said.
As the outbreak has grown, the nurse said employees fear for their safety because protocols are not in place to minimize the virus spread such as disinfecting many common areas.
Then on Thursday, the company told employees they need to get tested for the virus. Many have concerns about the spread because employees enter different parts of the buildings on the campus, the nurse said.
“People don’t feel safe,” the worker said. “Nurses are quitting."
Patient care has deteriorated as employees quit and supplies shrink, the worker said.
This account was relayed to Freedom Square’s parent company, Life Care Services of Iowa, which operates more than 130 properties, according to the website.
The company did not address the allegations in a statement to the Times.
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The first confirmed case of a resident was a man hospitalized on April 5, according to the medical examiner. He tested positive on April 9 for COVID-19. He died on April 10.
Then on Tuesday, Freedom Square officials said they transferred 38 nursing home patients to three local hospitals. Some were confirmed to have COVID-19, officials said, while others had symptoms or had come into contact with patients who displayed symptoms.
The outbreak didn’t become public until county officials revealed it Wednesday. Freedom Square confirmed the hospitalizations on Thursday. And information about the three deaths was not known until Friday, a week after the first death, when the Times obtained the medical examiner’s reports.
Freedom Square said on Thursday that 21 residents and six staffers had tested positive. Mason sent a note to residents, their families and employees announcing that “in an abundance of caution,” COVID-19 patients would be given “non-emergency transport” to local hospitals.
“This is not only good news for these residents, but it is also good news for the entire Freedom Square campus,” he wrote in a letter obtained by the Times.
Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard said she was told the facility was reluctant to transfer the patients to hospitals, but did so when they became overwhelmed by the outbreak. In its statement, the retirement community said it transferred the patients to stop the spread of the virus and to focus on the remaining patients still living in the building.
Then came Friday’s evacuation.
“This will allow the facility and (Department of Health) to completely reset the facility’s infection control practices, decontaminate the site, provide additional training for staff, etc.,” said a message the county administrator’s office sent to the Pinellas County Commission.
“On the advice of our partners, and out of an abundance of caution, at noon on Friday ... Freedom Square made the decision to transfer all remaining patients from Seminole Pavilion to local hospitals,” Mason said in a statement to the Times. "The families of all impacted residents have been contacted to let them know of the change in their loved one’s situation."
That afternoon, four ambulances started pulling up to the nursing home, each one taking a resident to a local hospital. The ambulances returned to pick up more patients, and on it went through the evening.
A total of 95 patients have been transferred out of the nursing home, Mason said, and all were tested for the virus. There have been 36 confirmed cases and six patients are awaiting the results of their tests. There were 53 residents who tested negative.
The residents who tested positive, or showed symptoms, were taken to local hospitals.
But Mason’s statement did not address how many staffers were tested, and how many of those tests came back positive.
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The first resident to die was Thomas Minichillo. He was 74.
He arrived at Largo Medical Center on April 5 for a “mental status change,” according to the medical examiner’s report.
At the time, he did not have flu-like symptoms. Two days later, he was hypoxic — deprived of oxygen — and was intubated. Doctors ordered a COVID-19 test. On April 9, he tested positive. He died, still intubated, at 2:27 p.m. on April 10.
Jean Israelson, 84, died Friday after a week of experiencing symptoms, according to a medical examiner’s report.
She was tested for COVID-19 on April 11. She was experiencing shortness of breath and was transported to Largo Medical Center on Tuesday. A laboratory confirmed Israelson had contracted COVID-19 before she died.
Daniel Lewis, 66, died Friday morning, a few hours after Israelson, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Lewis was taken Sunday from the nursing home to St. Anthony’s Hospital, where medical staff confirmed he had COVID-19. He was transferred to the Suncoast Hospice North Pinellas Care Center Wednesday. He was pronounced dead at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
Lewis was admitted to the hospital in mid-February with chest pain, difficulty breathing and a history of serious lung disease, but records indicate that as many as eight weeks passed before he was tested for COVID-19.
His daughter, Melissa, told the medical investigator that her father lived in his own home until mid-February, when he was admitted to St. Anthony’s, according to the report. Daniel Lewis, a heavy smoker with a history of severe lung disease, was suffering from chest pain and difficulty breathing.
He was diagnosed with a mycobacterium infection, treated, and transferred to Carrington Place. But he was admitted back to St. Anthony’s 12 hours later with worsening symptoms. Lewis was moved to Freedom Square for rehab on March 26.
He was tested at the nursing home for COVID-19 on April 10. Two days later, his results came back positive. He died five days after the positive test.
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Family members, attorneys and advocates have sounded alarms about the delays in residents and the public being informed about the outbreak.
April Hill, an elder law attorney with Hill Law Group in St. Petersburg, said one of her clients hadn’t heard anything until reports of the coronavirus outbreak hit the news. When the news became public, they got a generic phone call saying there were a few positive cases.
The client’s family member is in independent living at Freedom Square, which is housed in a separate building from the rehab center, Hill said.
She said her client felt like they were being left in the dark.
“They’re not feeling like Freedom Square is being open or honest with them,” Hill said.
Beth Woods of Chicago said her family is worried about her father, a Freedom Square resident who tested positive for COVID-19 and was transferred to a local hospital.
The family, Woods said, has not been able to get much information from Freedom Square.
She said they got several calls from staff on Thursday but “an employee couldn’t give me any specific information about my father or when he was tested or what he knew about his condition.”
“We still haven’t spoken with my father,” Woods said, “and not a single word from Freedom Square today.”
She praised the care and communication from the staff at Morton Plant Hospital. Woods said her family is learning more from the media than Freedom Square.
“Whatever they’re doing there is a complete cover up,” Woods told the Times about Freedom Square. “What’s happening now is not humane.”
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