Florida not sharing which nursing homes have COVID-19 as overall cases rise

The state no longer publishes data about the number of cases and deaths at individual long-term care facilities.
Residents look at the street through a window at the Icaria nursing home in Barcelona, Spain, Nov. 25, 2020. The image was part of a series by Associated Press photographer Emilio Morenatti that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Residents look at the street through a window at the Icaria nursing home in Barcelona, Spain, Nov. 25, 2020. The image was part of a series by Associated Press photographer Emilio Morenatti that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) [ EMILIO MORENATTI | AP ]
Published July 22, 2021

By the time Cheryl Flaherty celebrated the Fourth of July weekend inside her brother’s nursing home, the 75-year-old thought she had little to fear.

She and another sibling were fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, and Ed Monterose, 78, had a private room inside Orchid Cove at Dade City. He could not get a shot for health reasons, she said, and received no other visitors.

But a few days later, the facility called to say that her brother had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Next thing you know, he’s in the ER,” said Flaherty, from San Antonio, Florida. Within days, he was in hospice care.

Flaherty was shocked.

“Were all of the employees vaccinated? Were they tested daily, if not vaccinated?” she asked in a letter to the facility administrator on July 12. “I am wondering how many [residents] left the facility and, like my brother Ed, are in the hospital or hospice facing the end of their lives?” Flaherty said she received no response.

Neither Orchid Cove at Dade City, a 120-bed nursing home, nor its parent company, Orchid Cove Health Group, responded to the Tampa Bay Times’ email and phone requests for comment. Flaherty shared letters with the Times that were sent to family members by the facility administrator and postmarked July 9 and 15. They confirmed a recent outbreak among at least 25 residents and 14 staff members.

Ed Monterose died on Tuesday.

Across Florida, coronavirus case numbers are rising and nursing home staff vaccinations are lagging as the delta variant spreads. Florida’s overall case numbers more than doubled last week, and the state accounted for one in five COVID-19 cases nationally.

Six Florida nursing home residents died of COVID-19 in the week ending July 4, according to the most recently available federal data.

But when an outbreak strikes, it can be hard to get up-to-date information. The state has stopped sharing data on COVID-19 cases at individual facilities. And families cannot compel facilities to quickly disclose outbreaks or the percentage of staff or residents who have been vaccinated.

The public is aware of current outbreaks only when administrators choose to confirm them, as happened last week at Freedom Square of Seminole, which said on Friday that nine of its staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus. Freedom Square is a large senior home complex that faced a deadly outbreak in the early days of the pandemic.

Seventy percent of nursing home residents in the state had been vaccinated as of July 4, according to federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid data. But Florida has one of the lowest vaccination rates among nursing home staffers in the country, lagging every state but Louisiana, according to that data.

Fewer than half – 42 percent – of nursing home workers had been vaccinated as of July 4, according to an AARP analysis released on Monday, compared to 56 percent nationally.

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“If the staff aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to bring the virus in,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP Florida. “It’s a challenge because there are people living in facilities who, for medical reasons, can’t get vaccinated.”

At the dawn of the pandemic, Florida published a daily report listing the number of positive cases and deaths among staffers and residents for each long-term care facility — becoming one of the first states to do so. But in May, the state Department of Health, which collects this information, removed this data from its COVID-19 reports. And in June, the state went from publishing daily coronavirus reports to publishing the numbers weekly.

The Department of Health did not respond to multiple requests for information via email and phone about whether it plans to resume publishing COVID-19 data for individual long-term care facilities — given the rising case numbers overall — or to begin sharing facility vaccination rates.

For nursing homes, some data is available through the federal government, which requires skilled nursing facilities to self-report cases and vaccination rates for residents and staffers. But that data is updated only biweekly, creating a significant lag between available information and the current situation.

Assisted-living facilities are even more of a “black box” when it comes to coronavirus reporting, according to Johnson.

“We’re completely blind as to what’s going on in assisted-living facilities,” he said. “The state reporting wasn’t perfect, but it was far better than what we have now.”

Without state data, Floridians trying to make informed decisions for themselves or their loved ones have little way of knowing which facilities have low staff vaccination rates or frequent infections, advocates said. The concern is pronounced by still-developing knowledge about the delta variant, according to Johnson.

Some long-term care facilities in Tampa Bay are preparing for a resurgence in cases, according to Lucia Torres, a nurse who works through an agency at four senior homes across Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“Yesterday, they told us to use the shield and the mask again,” Torres said.