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Stepping up help for the vulnerable in elderly care centers | Editorial

The extra effort is needed to protect seniors, staff, vendors and the general public.

The “strike teams” that Gov. Ron DeSantis has dispatched to expand testing at Florida’s senior-care centers will better protect elderly Floridians and the public at-large from the spread of the coronavirus. Still, the governor needs to commit more resources to bolster this containment effort in a meaningful way. And the state needs to disclose more information about the outbreaks at these facilities so that residents, their families, workers and the public can make smarter decisions as this pandemic unfolds.

DeSantis acknowledged Monday that the scope of the COVID-19 crisis in the state’s elder-care facilities had become more dire, and he directed the Florida National Guard to significantly ramp up testing of residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As Ben Conarck and Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported, teams have already visited 93 facilities where residents have tested positive. But the governor is right that a new surge is needed, especially to target asymptomatic carriers of the virus among staff. Four-person medical teams will start visiting every elder-care facility in South Florida where testing hasn’t occurred, bringing hundreds of additional facilities into the fold. This is a critical piece of a public health strategy that has been missing to now.

Testing employees is key, as they are more likely spreading the virus, now that the state has closed access for visitors to these facilities. Ironically, it could be careworkers who are exposing this especially vulnerable population to contagion. And given the state’s large elderly population, it only makes sense to fortify protections for seniors. Of the state’s roughly 22,100 cases as of Wednesday, those aged 65 to 74 comprised the highest proportion of hospitalizations, with those 75 and over accounting for the greatest number of deaths.

DeSantis, though, is undermining his own strategy and public confidence in the state’s response by continuing to refuse to identify which nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities have had residents and staff who tested positive for COVID-19. The public has a right to know this essential information. Families anxious to get details about their loves are being left in the dark - with many who live across the country unable to rush to Florida to push for information. As of Monday afternoon, there were 962 positive cases in Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities, including parts of the state that previously had not been considered hot spots. But the governor’s information blackout makes it impossible to determine the scope of testing and infections. Employees and vendors of these facilities - and their families - also deserve to know the health risks they are facing in performing this essential service.

The Miami Herald has been joined by other news media outlets in preparing a public records lawsuit against the state to force the disclosure of all elder-care facilities that have had a positive coronavirus test. Does a governor who declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus now want to argue in court the public has no right to know? Expand testing, isolate those infected and monitor the contact of the carriers - that’s how the state will make the smartest use of this promising new approach.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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