TALLAHASSEE — As Florida’s elder care facilities are becoming increasingly lethal incubators of the novel coronavirus, state officials revealed for the first time Saturday that 302 facilities in 45 counties have staff or residents who have tested positive for the deadly respiratory infection.
The facilities were named in a list released by the Florida Department of Health after Gov. Ron DeSantis reversed the agency’s policy and ordered the state’s surgeon general to release the names of the facilities.
“I have now directed him to determine that it is necessary for public health to release the names of the facilities where a resident or staff member is tested positive for COVID-19,’’ DeSantis said at an afternoon press conference at the Old Capitol building.
DeSantis has been under increasing pressure from advocates such as AARP and families of residents who have been barred by the pandemic from visiting their relatives and said they needed the information to be assured that their loved ones are safe. A coalition of news organizations has also threatened to sue him for violating the state public records law.
A list of more than 300 facilities, released Saturday night, included 25 in Pinellas, four in Hillsborough and two in Pasco. Pinellas had the fourth most confirmed cases at elder care facilities, following Miami-Dade, 54; Broward, 39; and Palm Beach, 36.
Those listed from Tampa Bay were:
• Freedom Plaza
• Inspired Living At Tampa
• Promise Pointe At Tampa Oaks
• Rocky Creek Village
• Grand Villa Of New Port Richey
• Royal Oaks Nursing Center
• Arc Of Tampa Bay: Al Hambra
• Arc Of Tampa Bay: Clearwater
• Arc Of Tampa Bay: Safety Harbor
• Bay Tree Center
• Belleair Health Care Center
• Consulate Health Care of Safety Harbor
• Consulate Health Care of St. Petersburg
• Heron House Of Largo
• Highland Pines Rehabilitation Center
• Inn At Freedom Square (The)
• Inn At Lake Seminole Square (The)
• Lakeside Oaks Care Center
• Manorcare Health Services Dunedin
• Masonic Home Of Florida
• Morton Plant Rehabilitation Center
• Palm Garden Of Clearwater
• Palm Garden Of Largo
• Pinellas Point Nursing And Rehab Center
• Regal Palms
• Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation & Nursing Services
• South Heritage Health & Rehabilitation Center
• St. Mark Assisted Living Center
• St. Mark Village
• Tierra Pines Center
But the measure was opposed by the industry, such as the Florida Health Care Association, which represents 300 nursing homes. It argued releasing the information would violate patient privacy.
As DeSantis has marshaled the forces of state government to fight the novel coronavirus, he has repeatedly been accused of withholding information, ranging from no-bid purchase orders worth millions of dollars for protective masks, to sluggish reporting of the case count and testing data, to failing to be forthright about the toll the disease has taken on the state’s prison system.
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Until Saturday, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees had shielded from the public the names of the facilities that have reported positive COVID-19 cases, despite indications that one in five cases in Florida are in the 3,800 assisted living or nursing homes in Florida.
After the governor’s order, the state reported that there are 1,627 cases in residents or staff at long-term care facilities, including 54 facilities in Miami-Dade, 39 in Broward, 36 in Palm Beach and none in Monroe counties. The data shows that about 8 percent of the 3,800 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have active positive cases, a percentage the industry says is low because of the work staff has done to shield residents. See the list here.
However the data also shows cases are not confined to the communities considered “hot spots” for the disease but are in 45 of the state’s 67 counties.
While the list of the facilities reveals which have active COVID-19 cases, it does not provide the public with any indication of the degree of the problem.
Unlike the information the state starting releasing over the last week about COVID-19 cases in prisons, the Department of Health list of long-term care facilities does not indicate the number of staff or residents who tested positive and does not list how many deaths, if any, each facility has had as a result of the disease.
“We would like to see complete information but this is a very good step,’’ said Dave Bruns, spokesman for AARP Florida. “Families now have at least some idea if the disease is in the facility where their loved one is and, even better, families know where it’s not. They have a greater level of peace of mind if they know their facility isn’t on the list.”
The state’s refusal to release the names of the facilities had drawn a public records challenge from a coalition of news organizations. Begun as a lawsuit drafted by the Miami Herald, the challenge had drawn support from several other news media, including Gannett’s Florida publications, the Sun Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, The New York Times, Scripps’ five Florida TV stations, and the First Amendment Foundation.
“We are heartened that Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken this first step toward transparency,” said Miami Herald publisher and executive editor Aminda Marqués González. “However, we urge the state to release important details — beyond the names of elderly care facilities — including the number of cases at each facility and the number of COVID-19 deaths. This is the critical information families need to make informed decisions about care for their loved ones.”
Carol LoCicero, of Thomas & LoCicero, who is representing the news coalition, said the firm is reviewing the information the state released Saturday.
“The news organizations we represent want one thing: to keep the public fully informed with current information so they can make good decisions about their loved ones. Period,’’ she said. “We hope this first step indicates the state will be releasing more detailed information soon.”
LeadingAge Florida President Steve Bahmer, which represents many assisted living facilites, said it applauds the governor “for making the right decision in the interest of public health and the safety of Florida’s seniors.”
“COVID-19 remains a rapidly-spreading virus with known community spread and because of this, transparency regarding the locations and names of facilities where cases have been confirmed is critical to public health and safety,’’ Bahmer said.
The governor did not explain why he reversed the decision but said he expects releasing the information will serve as “double security because all these facilities are required to notify families and required to notify the other residents and staff.”
“I think they all have done that but all it takes is one [that] doesn’t do it. I would want to know,’’ he said. “I don’t want to be in a situation where the families don’t know. So that’s going to be part of what is put out publicly.”
But Bruns, the AARP spokesman, said that many families members were not informed.
“We have been hearing an increasing number of concerns from our members that they didn’t feel they were getting the full story,’’ he said.
DeSantis said the fate of elder residents has been a primary concern for the state since the onset of the pandemic. Health officials have required staff to be screened for symptoms before entering any facility. The governor has barred visitors from facilities for the last month, and this week he deployed National Guard “strike teams” to do aggressive testing at long-term care homes with the highest numbers of positive cases.
He said they have learned that in some facilities “the outbreak has affected staff” more than residents.
“You may have everyone doing everything right in one of these facilities, but you could have a staff member who’s not symptomatic, and it can go and it could spread throughout the staff and spread to the residents very very quickly,’’ he said.
Also Saturday, the governor announced that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year. He said that the decision was made after discussions with parents and teachers around the state and concluding that distance learning was successful.
“We spoke with a lot of folks throughout the state. There were some differing opinions,’’ he said. “Some parents were not interested in their kids going back. For others, it’s been tough around the house and they would have liked to have seen them go back.”
But he said they concluded students were doing well with distance learning and decided to continue keeping them home.
DeSantis also said that on Monday he will announce a task force focused on small businesses, elected officials and business sectors who will focus on reopening the state. The group will work throughout the week and present a plan to him at the end of next week.
“It’s a pretty good cross section of folks and, you know, these are folks who have seen this from different angles and I think that’s why it’s really really helpful,’’ he said.
DeSantis has been talking all week about creating a task force for reopening the economy, echoing President Donald J. Trump, who has floated a May 1 date for some parts of the country.
Other governors from both parties are also talking about reopening businesses and activities in their states. On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a task force of medical and economic experts to reopen that state, with an early May target. Schools in Texas will remain closed for the rest of the school year.
DeSantis has talked about returning kids to school within weeks, and on Friday, he gave the green light for counties to reopen beaches.
Reopening parts of the country carries risks, however, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert. He told the Associated Press this week that the May 1 target was “a bit overly optimistic” for many parts of the country.
“I’ll guarantee you, once you start pulling back there will be infections. It’s how you deal with the infections that’s going to count,” Fauci said.
Reopening the economy would require a method to identify and quickly isolate infected people to prevent a widespread outbreak, Fauci said. Such a method does not yet exist, he said.
“We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet,” he said.
Any plan would likely require a dramatic increase in testing and faster test results, something that does not exist in Florida, which is still restricting tests primarily to people with symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and coughing. People can have the virus without having any symptoms, however.
DeSantis said last month that he was exploring the idea of isolating people with COVID-19 symptoms in hotels or other sites, similar to what other countries have done. But he hasn’t mentioned it in detail since.
His own surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, recommended a different course of action this week. On Monday, Rivkees said Floridians should practice social distancing until a vaccine is discovered — even if a vaccine doesn’t arrive for a year.
“As long as we’re going to have COVID in the environment, and this is a tough virus, we’re going to have to practice these measures so that we are all protected,” he told reporters.
That message was apparently not well received by DeSantis’ office, whose spokeswoman immediately diverted reporters’ questions to another agency official, then went up to Rivkees and removed him from the room. Rivkees’ spokesman said Rivkees left for an appointment.
On Wednesday, DeSantis said he didn’t hear what Rivkees said, but he disputed the idea that Floridians should wait for a vaccine.
“There is no vaccine for SARS or MERS,” DeSantis said, referring to two earlier strains of coronavirus. “I don’t think it’s a 100 percent guarantee that there is going to be a vaccine.”
Conservative Fox News show host Laura Ingraham made a similar comment about SARS in an interview with Fauci on Thursday. Fauci disagreed with the comparison, saying that a SARS vaccine was in development before the virus disappeared.
“SARS disappeared, and we didn’t need to develop a vaccine,” he told her.
Fauci said some safety measures will need to stay in place until a vaccine exists, but it “doesn’t mean we can’t approach a significant degree of normality” in the meantime, he said.
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