SEMINOLE — The death toll rose Tuesday among patients evacuated last week from a Seminole elder-care center, and the National Guard is expected to arrive Wednesday to help conduct tests at facilities across Pinellas County.
A 96-year-old woman became the fourth resident to die after authorities evacuated at least 95 residents last week from Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation, part of the sprawling Freedom Square of Seminole retirement community, where at least 54 residents and 22 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
National Guard members likely will target the skilled-nursing centers before focusing on other facilities, records show. With more than 250 elder-care centers in Pinellas, county officials are scrambling to make sure employees at the centers are properly trained to wear personal-protective equipment, records show. Paramedics and fire crews plan to educate and train employees in each center to help minimize the virus spread.
“We’re going to go make sure they have support in place,” county administrator Barry Burton told the Tampa Bay Times. “Where we’re seeing more cases, we want to make sure protocols are in place.”
As the crisis worsens at elder-care centers, county officials are worried that the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates elder-care centers, is not doing enough to help mitigate virus risks.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, told top county officials Tuesday that health care administration officials participated in a call about Freedom Square, but said the county “wanted more.” He suggested sending a letter to the agency, records show.
Meanwhile, Cathie Perkins, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management, said the county is concerned that elder-care centers don’t have enough protective gear and that “facilities don’t have arms around what they truly need,” records show.
County officials fear that workers are transporting the virus as they shuffle between buildings on the campuses.
The latest COVID-19 death of a resident of Freedom Square was on Monday, according to a Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office report. Margaret Lally, 96, died just after 2 p.m. at Suncoast Hospice Care Center North Pinellas. She had a history of cardiovascular disease and had recently tested positive for the virus, the report says.
Lally was a resident of Seminole Pavilion, the skilled-nursing facility on Freedom Square’s campus. The medical examiner’s report doesn’t say when Lally was moved to hospice care.
Meanwhile, 13 residents and eight staff members tested positive for the disease at St. Mark Village in Palm Harbor. The center asked the county and state for help with the COVID-19 cases this past weekend, according to its director. At least seven patients were transferred to hospitals on Monday.
The rise in cases at St. Mark Village followed the outbreak at Freedom Square. Both facilities were named in a list that Gov. Ron DeSantis released Saturday identifying more than 300 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that have reported cases of COVID-19.
At Freedom Square, 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 and died on April 10. The center has come under scrutiny for not sharing information with employees, patients and their families.
Greg Nedella, a maintenance worker at Freedom Square, told the Times on Monday that employees worried that patients had contracted the disease in late March and early April, but said managers dismissed those fears. Days later, Nedella said, he was told to enter the skilled-care area only for emergency repairs. At one point, he said, he refused a request to tape a plastic partition in a hallway in the wing.
When people entered the nursing center, Nedella said, an employee took temperatures of workers and wore masks and gloves. But when employees entered other buildings, workers were not wearing protective equipment, he said.
Nedella, 64, said he had a sore throat and called the Florida Health Department in Pinellas County to get tested for COVID-19 on April 10. He said he worried he could take the virus home to his wife. He said he told managers he was tested, but said they questioned his motives for being tested outside work.
“They really took a very lazy attitude about the whole thing,” Nedella said. “It’s just the opposite of how it should have been handled.”
Freedom Square executive director Michael Mason sent this statement to the Times: “We simply do not agree with this individual’s assessment on how we prepared and have managed during this pandemic.”
Nedella later tested negative for COVID-19 and said he has been under a 14-day quarantine. He said he is expected to return to work on Monday.
“I don’t think I’m going back in there,” he said. “They were never up front.”
Correction: The coronavirus-related death of Margaret Lally occurred at Suncoast Hospice Care Center North Pinellas. The name of the facility was incorrect in an earlier version of the story, due to an error in a report from the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office.
Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.
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