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Coronavirus cases plummet at Florida care facilities after vaccines

Tampa Bay case numbers have fallen to one-fifth of their peak in January.
Erma Ferguson, 93, center, poses for a picture with Walgreens pharmacist Drin Mita, right, moments after receiving her second BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo on  Feb. 11, 2021.
Erma Ferguson, 93, center, poses for a picture with Walgreens pharmacist Drin Mita, right, moments after receiving her second BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo on Feb. 11, 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 5, 2021|Updated Mar. 5, 2021

The number of coronavirus cases in Florida nursing homes and assisted-living facilities is down dramatically since their peak in January and after nearly a year of deadly outbreaks and resident isolation.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported 684 coronavirus cases among Florida’s 136,780 long-term care residents, down from 3,651 cases on Jan. 17. The steep decline follows months of vaccination clinics in the facilities that began in mid-December. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared long-term care residents and staffers among his top priorities in the state’s vaccination rollout.

The Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, had 96 coronavirus cases among long-term care residents on Tuesday, down from 526 on Jan. 17, according to Florida Department of Health data.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, 10,408 people had died in Florida’s long-term care centers as of Feb. 26 — nearly a third of Florida’s 31,696 deaths overall, according to state data.

The vaccines have had an immense impact on case numbers in these facilities, said Kristen Knapp, spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, the industry group representing nursing homes. But facilities are continuing to follow precautionary measures to keep the coronavirus outside their doors —social distancing, masks and screening questions about coronavirus exposure before visits.

“It’s been a year and certainly gives our facilities hope, so that at some point we can get ourselves back to our sense of normal,” Knapp said. “From the facility standpoint, this is a great morale booster for our staff when we see our numbers dropping.”

Some of the association’s member facilities have yet to host their third vaccine clinics to administer second shots, Knapp said. But the association is beginning to think about a long-range plan for vaccinations.

One important question, she said, is how new residents and staffers will be vaccinated. The association has been talking with pharmacies about that and will ask the state for guidance.

The drop in cases shows how important it was to vaccinate long-term care residents and staff members first, said Lindsay Peterson, research assistant professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida.

“It shows that it makes a difference,” she said, “that we have the power to do something about this.”

Hopefully, facilities will be able to return to normal, Peterson said. Residents’ anxiety levels were high during the pandemic — with visitation restrictions and a lack of community meals and activities.

“It’s their mental and emotional health that is so important and tied in many ways to their ability to get together and see each other.... The things that give their life meaning,” she said.

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