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DeSantis wants to clear way for Florida nursing home visitors

Residents of the facilities have been shut off from having visitors since March 14, when DeSantis issued an executive order banning visitation.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to reopen long-term care facilities so the tens of thousands of residents can once again have visitors, but he offered no details on when that would occur.

“We’ve now been two months where visitors have not been allowed at these facilities,” DeSantis said during a Wednesday news conference at the Capitol, where he was joined by Florida Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees and Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew. “My view has been that I want to get to ‘yes’ on that. I just want to be able to know that we have procedures in place that if someone goes to visit their mother, that two weeks later we are not going to have 50 infections roil a nursing home or a long-term care facility.”

Residents of the facilities have been shut off from having visitors since March 14, when DeSantis issued an executive order banning visitation as a way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

While DeSantis said the decision helped prevent thousands of infections at the nearly 700 nursing homes and 3,100 assisted living facilities across the state, it’s not without repercussions.

“Having the isolation does come at a psychological and social cost,” DeSantis said. “I think one of the frustrating things throughout this whole process has been an inability of people to ever discuss the negative effects of mitigation.”

But the moratorium on visitation, as well as other steps the administration has taken, did not prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and intermediate care facilities for developmentally disabled people in many areas of the state.

As of Wednesday, more than 42 percent of the 1,827 COVID-19 deaths in Florida stemmed from cases contracted in long-term care facilities. Of the 776 deaths tied to the facilities, 376 of them involved facilities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Twenty five percent of the state’s 67 counties have facilities with at least 11 long-term care deaths.

DeSantis’ comments about visitation came as his administration moves to increase the numbers of nursing home residents and staff members being tested for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The disease is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions.

The administration in recent days issued a pair of emergency rules that require all nursing homes and assisted living facilities to allow the Department of Health into the buildings to test staff members and residents. The rules require that all facilities visited by the Department of Health make their staff available for testing. Testing for residents, though, remains optional. The governor acknowledged at the news conference that some residents at DOH-targeted facilities have not consented to the testing.

President Donald Trump said Monday that he’d like to see all nursing home residents across the nation tested in the next two weeks. While DeSantis is an ally of Trump, his administration is not testing staff and residents at all facilities, just COVID-19 hotspots.

Regardless of whether there is spot testing for problematic facilities or mandatory testing at all facilities, the approach is flawed, said Brian Lee, a former state long-term care ombudsman who is now executive director of the advocacy group Families for Better Care.

Lee maintains that there should be daily testing of all long-term care staff members and residents. He wants all nursing homes in Florida to have rapid molecular point-of-care tests that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for use in March.

“What’s needed for a good testing solution is ongoing testing. Because as soon as those people (health officials) get in the door … they can test everybody. But no more than five minutes after they’ve walked out the door, somebody went to Publix and picked up the COVID-19. They have said they don’t show symptoms and they are positive,” Lee said. “They walk in the building and expose everybody. So that’s why you need regular daily testing for the residents and the staff.”

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