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State helps test all residents, workers in Pinellas long-term care centers

The coronavirus death toll at county nursing homes continued to rise on Tuesday.
An emergency medical worker helps in an evacuation April 20 at St. Mark Village nursing home. State health officials now are conducting COVID-19 tests on residents and employees in all long-term care facilities in Pinellas County.
An emergency medical worker helps in an evacuation April 20 at St. Mark Village nursing home. State health officials now are conducting COVID-19 tests on residents and employees in all long-term care facilities in Pinellas County. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jun. 2, 2020
Updated Jun. 2, 2020

As older Floridians continue to die from the COVID-19 virus, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is now testing all residents and employees in the county’s 250 long-term care centers.

The testing is expected to be completed this week in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care centers, Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton told county commissioners on Tuesday.

To complete the testing, the Florida Department of Health sent test kits to half of the 250 centers in the county, and tests will be performed on-site at the other locations, Burton said. The results from the tests have not yet been returned.

“Our nursing homes are still a concern,” Burton told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is working closely with the Florida National Guard strike teams to test all employees and residents in long-term care facilities, spokesman Thomas Iovino said in a statement.

“These tests will be mandatory for staff and voluntary — but strongly encouraged — for residents to determine how widespread the virus which causes the COVID-19 disease has been transmitted and will inform isolation and treatment decisions,” the statement said.

The first facilities completed their testing by June 1, and the results are being posted to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the statement said. Facilities with properly trained staff to conduct the tests are being sent the test materials. Facilities without trained staff will have tests taken by the state.

As of Tuesday, the Department of Health had coordinated 106,296 tests among residents and staff at 1,415 long-tern care facilities across Florida, the statement said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice told Burton he wants to make sure that facilities train employees on infection controls, adding: “It’s really important that we keep the focus on it."

To help stop the virus from spreading in the 250 centers, firefighters and paramedics have been inspecting them for weeks to make sure that each follows proper protocols and has enough protective gear. The county continues to stockpile and distribute the gear to facilities for future outbreaks, Burton said.

“That’s been a tremendous value to our community,” Burton said. “That will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.”

Four nursing home deaths were reported Tuesday in Pinellas County and two in Pasco County, according to Medical Examiner’s Office records.

One of the deaths was reported at the beleaguered Freedom Square of Seminole, which has had among the highest death tolls among nursing homes in the state. The new numbers bring deaths at long-term care facilities in Pinellas County to 65 among the 88 deaths overall, according to a Times count.

According to the Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes around the state, the governor wanted to complete testing of all facility employees within two weeks. But the governor’s office hasn’t publicly announced a timeline and has not responded to previous requests from the Times for clarification on the state’s plans.

State officials have asked facilities to report if they have the capacity to carry out testing themselves, said association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp. Department of Health strike teams are continuing to travel to facilities to help with the testing effort, she said.

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