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More Pinellas nursing home residents die of coronavirus in one of Florida’s worst outbreaks

More than half of the county’s deaths in the pandemic have ties to long-term care facilities. Meanwhile, the CEO of a nursing home bemoans a lag in test results.

Nine more residents and a nurse from the long-term care campus of Freedom Square in Seminole have died in the last week, according to records and a statement from an administrator, bringing the toll of the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak to as many as 18 people.

That’s among the worst nursing home outbreaks in all of Florida, according to a list of deaths released by state officials for the first time Friday. The list is the subject of records requests that have become central to a pending lawsuit from a consortium of news organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times.

Dozens of people connected to Freedom Square have tested positive for the disease, prompting an evacuation of residents and a call for help from the National Guard. The coronavirus started spreading in the Seminole Pavilion nursing facility, which is on the Freedom Square campus. As of earlier this week, the state reported current positive cases of the coronavirus in at least 67 residents (all transferred to other medical facilities) and 39 staff members.

Related: ‘It didn’t have to be that way:’ Daughters question info from Seminole nursing home after mom dies

“We are saddened to confirm that one of our team members, a nurse who worked at Seminole Pavilion, has passed away as a result of COVID-19,” Executive Director Michael Mason wrote in a statement to the Times on Friday. “On behalf of our community, we send our thoughts and prayers to the family and loved ones affected by this loss.”

Citing a relative, Fox-13 reported the nurse was 67-year-old Marjorie Blackman of Spring Hill. Mason wrote in an email that she last worked April 10 and had joined Freedom Square in July 2009. She did not appear on a list Friday of coronavirus-related deaths for the medical examiner’s office that covers Hernando County.

In a daily update to staffers and families, Mason did not mention Blackman’s death and said 42 employees are positive for the coronavirus, more than the state total, with 42 tests pending. He offered a count of 17 deaths and said 24 residents have already returned to Seminole Pavilion.

A state report Friday of long-term care facilities listed three homes with 14 deaths each, the highest individual total in Florida: Seminole Pavilion; Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center in Live Oak; and Braden River Rehabilitation Center in Bradenton. Each had one staffer dead. The list included at least three deaths in Hillsborough, three in Pasco and 29 in Manatee. Nearly all were residents.

The state said the data are “provisional.” Other Freedom Square facilities on the list added to the death count there, with three more residents, making 17 people overall, according to the state.

“The information contained in this report reflects the current available information for nursing homes and assisted living facilities that have had a death that can be linked to the facility,” the report noted.

From April 24 to Friday evening, the nine residents who died at Freedom Square were: Susan Jones, 78; Eleanor Schueneman, 94; Jeanette DeFrank, 102; Donna Mortensen, 98; Anthony Fabrizio, 93; George Egolf, 89; Sue Stephenson, 80; Emil Sudol, 91; and Eunice Angelone, 95. Each death was confirmed by reports from the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s office.

Accounts of the residents’ deaths mostly follow a familiar pattern, a “decline” that begins with symptoms like shortness of breath and fever, then continues into further respiratory distress and final trips to hospitals or hospice.

A resident of Seminole Pavilion tested positive April 9 but the outbreak did not become public until April 15.

Related: Seminole nursing home has dozens of coronavirus cases; 38 patients taken to three hospitals

Of the 39 COVID-19 deaths in Pinellas County reported by the medical examiner, 24 were connected to long-term care facilities. That included seven at St. Mark Village in Palm Harbor. In the last week, six residents died: Harry Adrian, 97; Evelyn Reed, 93; Otis Mack, 87; Norma Blanco, 99; Maureen Hally, 75; and Louise Hutcherson, 97.

The state list Friday reported just five deaths at the facility.

CEO Doug Fresh said St. Mark has so far contained the spread of coronavirus on its campus, which includes assisted and independent living, to just the skilled nursing home. He said 23 infected residents have been transferred to hospitals, and 25 uninfected have been able to stay on-site as professional cleaners disinfect the home. So far, Fresh said, the cleaners have finished one of three wings. He said 12 staff members have tested positive.

“I’m not sure we’re done,” Fresh said, but staff members testing negative will return to work and he hopes to get residents back, too. “We’ve been told as you test more you find more, and things happen, but there’s a sense that we may be a week from gaining some ground on this terrible disease.”

Related: Death of Palm Harbor nursing home resident ‘just doesn’t seem fair,’ son says

Fresh said two of the positive tests in staff members came in the last week, a source of frustration after he said the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County visited last Tuesday to take samples at St. Mark. Some results, he said, took more than a week to come back, including a positive test for a health care staffer only this Thursday. The staffer, Fresh said, had been asymptomatic and working while the test was pending.

“I feel like I’m navigating a ship, I’ve lost my navigation instruments,” he said. “The testing and the speed of getting results for testing has been totally inadequate.”

Emergency medical services vehicles arrive at St. Mark Village in Palm Harbor earlier this month.
Emergency medical services vehicles arrive at St. Mark Village in Palm Harbor earlier this month. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

AdventHealth will bring a mobile unit Monday, he said, retesting everyone and promising results within 24 hours.

“Had I had more tests available to me and quicker results,” Fresh said, trailing off. “It’s just sad.”

A spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County said “that testing was a regional rather than a county effort,” and directed questions to Pasco County Emergency Management.

A Pasco County spokeswoman said any tests conducted by a regional hazard team are going to a contracted lab, though she declined to identify the lab, referring that question to the state. A state health department spokesman said he was looking into the issue late Friday but did not provide answers by the end of the day.

As of their latest available update, Florida health officials reported 2,657 residents of long-term care facilities had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 1,374 staffers. Those figures, however, were self-reported by homes and only include current cases. The state in one tally had reported 444 deaths among residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Related: Florida releases data on number of COVID-19 cases in each nursing home, assisted living facility

The count includes four people in Pasco County. Medical examiner records show they are residents of Royal Oak Nursing Center in Dade City.

The residents who died were: Sarah Pasquariello, 92; Otis Jackson, 85; Bernard Petereit, 71; and Patricia Chumas, 72.

Jake Mitchell, administrator for Royal Oak, said in a statement that the home is taking precautions and following recommendations from health officials.

“As all of the scientific experts have warned, even despite best efforts and compliance with guidelines, this virus can spread and spread quickly,” Mitchell said.

In the last three weeks, he said, 15 residents and 13 staff members tested positive while 94 residents and 97 staffers tested negative. Three infected residents are hospitalized, according to Mitchell, while another eight are in a “specialized segregated COVID-19 positive unit.”

“We want to express our heartfelt sympathy for four of our residents who died as a result of the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of these residents during this difficult time.”

Times staff writers Mark Puente, Kathryn Varn, Connie Humburg, Allison Ross, Langston Taylor and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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