SEMINOLE — Twenty-seven people living and working in a Pinellas County nursing facility have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more have been hospitalized, but it took days for that information to be made public.
A resident of Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation tested positive on April 9 for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a statement by Freedom Square of Seminole, a sprawling retirement community of 700 residents that includes the pavilion facility. By Thursday, 21 pavilion residents and six employees had tested positive for the disease.
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, Freedom Square officials transferred 38 pavilion patients to three local hospitals to be monitored. The group ran the gamut — from people confirmed to have COVID-19, to those with symptoms, to those with no symptoms who had potentially been exposed to the virus.
Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard said she was told the facility was reluctant to transfer the patients to hospitals, but did so when they became overwhelmed by the outbreak. In its statement, the community said it transferred the patients to stop the spread of the virus and to focus on the remaining patients still living in the building.
Officials did not disclose the medical status of any of those patients.
The Seminole facility is just one of several senior care centers across the country that have become hotbeds of coronavirus spread. But in Florida, it’s unclear which facilities are facing infections because state health officials are not naming the ones where positive tests have occurred.
“What is the governor trying to hide? And why is he trying to bully people who want answers?” Barbara DeVane, of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, said during a Thursday conference call led by state Democrats and senior advocates.
“This is disgusting,” DeVane said, “and people better realize that their rights under the Constitution will be trampled upon if they don’t sit up, take notice and do something about it.”
Freedom Square executive director Michael Mason said the company is working to share information with patient families, employees and health officials.
"This is a difficult and challenging time as our community and state work to contain the spread of COVID-19," the community’s statement said. "As a senior living community, our priority is to protect the health and safety of our patients, residents and employees.”
On its website, Freedom Square is described as a 15-acre retirement community offering a progression of services, from independent living to assisted living and long-term care. The site describes its “quaint town square with paved brick streets and welcoming gazebo,” all in a garden-like setting with two ponds.
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Elizabeth Kirkman, 84, who lives in the Freedom Square retirement community, said residents were told within the past week that 10 residents had been diagnosed with coronavirus. On Thursday, she heard that the number had grown.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I know the halls. I know the people who were in there. It breaks my heart.”
No visitors have been allowed into the community, she said. Her children, who live in Pensacola and Naples, cannot visit. Residents have been told to wear masks whenever they leave their rooms and not congregate; only two people are allowed in the elevators at the same time.
Kirkman’s husband, Jim, died in March after an illness, she said. For much of the time he was sick, he was in the nursing facility, in the same area where she’s heard coronavirus patients were living. His death devastated her, and because it happened amid the virus’s spread, she’s been unable to grieve with family members. But she’s grateful that he isn’t there as more fall ill from the pandemic.
“During these last few days, I’ve been glad that Jim was dead and out of there,” she said. “His wing would be a hotbed of a lot of really weak people that would be getting it. I’m glad he’s safe.”
Lori Talbot, the co-power of attorney for a 93-year-old wheelchair-bound woman in Freedom Square, said she woke up to the news on TV Thursday morning. As of Thursday afternoon, the facility had yet to contact her about the outbreak.
“We were just there yesterday. We dropped off things at the front door,” said Talbot, 55, who lives in St. Petersburg. “I have been trying to call there for three days and could not get anyone in the nursing station to answer.”
She said the facility has sent her various notices about new precautions since the outbreak began, but yesterday was the first day she saw employees completely dressed in masks and gloves and taking temperatures at the front door.
“I would expect them as soon as they found out they had positive employees and residents to call family members and let them know,” she said.
Freedom Square said in the statement it hired a professional cleaning service to disinfect all centers on the campus. Testing is underway for all residents and employees, who will be monitored closely to "ensure that anyone who becomes symptomatic follows the protocols necessary to limit the spread.”
A national database assembled by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the Seminole center had an issue with infection control in 2018 and 2019. In each of those years, facilities on the property received two citations from the Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services. All four were a common citation known as "potential for harm." That means practices at the facility "could lead to harm but no one has been hurt," according to Kaiser.
As many as 3.8 million infections occur in U.S. nursing homes every year, the foundation says.
Florida’s elder care facilities have been operating under lockdown restrictions since March 15. That means no visitors are allowed on campus and residents aren’t allowed to go outside. Activities are limited and meals are served in-room, instead of in communal dining rooms. Staff take their temperature at the door and are required to wear masks at all times.
But despite precautions, the number of COVID-19 diagnoses within long-term care facilities continues to grow. So far, there are 1,394 cases in Florida long-term care facilities, according to the latest state data released Thursday. Employees say they have struggled to fulfill requirements to wear masks and other protective gear because of a worldwide shortage.
Priya Chidambaram, a policy analyst at the Kaiser foundation, said seniors in centers like these in Florida are at a higher risk of contracting infections. Florida’s occupancy density in elder-care facilities is 87 percent, which is higher than the national average of 80 percent.
“This means there are more people in one space and more filled beds,” Chidambaram said. “And more people is going to lead to more spread, or at least more instances of where spread can happen.”
She also said of Florida: “The lack of data is telling. We won’t truly know the extent of the problem until there’s national-level data that can attribute how many deaths in nursing homes are from coronavirus.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced plans for the Florida National Guard to assist “strike teams” that conduct COVID-19 tests inside nursing homes and assisted living facilities around the state. Teams have already been sent to 93 facilities where residents tested positive, he said.
Meanwhile, a trade group is asking DeSantis to grant new immunity provisions that would protect long-term care facilities from negligence suits related to the coronavirus.
On their conference call Thursday, Florida Democrats and senior advocates called on the governor to release more information about senior facilities impacted by COVID-19.
The lack of transparency about positive cases and testing is “like a hand grenade waiting to go off,” said Bill Sauers, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.
“And it’s going to take so many down once it does.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Ft. Lauderdale, blasted the Florida Health Care Association’s request for civil and criminal liability immunity, saying such protections for a private industry would be outrageous and unconstitutional.
“The governor has a chance here to intervene in a positive way for the protection of our nursing home residents and workers and assisted living facility residents and workers,” Farmer said.
The Tampa Bay Times has joined the Miami Herald and other media outlets in filing a notice they intend to file a public records lawsuit against the state to obtain the names of facilities with coronavirus infections.
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