Why can’t Florida test everyone in nursing homes? | Editorial
The federal government recommends testing every patient and staffer in the next two weeks.
Emergency personnel prepare to transport a patient by ambulance from the Freedom Square Seminole Nursing Pavilion in April in Seminole.
Emergency personnel prepare to transport a patient by ambulance from the Freedom Square Seminole Nursing Pavilion in April in Seminole. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 13, 2020

With nursing homes remaining dangerous hot spots for the coronavirus in Tampa Bay and throughout the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday pledged to increase testing and designate regional long-term care facilities dedicated to COVID-19 patients. Yet more needs to be done, and the federal government should provide Florida with additional help by requiring regular testing for the virus in every facility and providing the human and financial capital to carry it out. Nursing home staffers are performing heroic work under difficult conditions, and government at every level has an obligation to step up efforts to protect both staffers and our most vulnerable residents who deserve better.

This week’s headlines are not encouraging. A total of 15 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were evacuated Monday from long-term care facilities in St. Petersburg and Pinellas and taken by first responders to local hospitals. Six more residents of Freedom Square of Seminole died in recent days, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office. That makes at least 30 residents and one staffer from that facility who have died as a result of the pandemic. Every one of these victims are somebody’s family member, and society cannot accept these sorts of numbers as unavoidable consequences of the pandemic.

To his credit, DeSantis has focused on nursing homes and other elder-care facilities since the beginning weeks of the spread of the virus. Two months ago, he issued an executive order stopping visitations at these facilities. He also prohibited COVID-19 patients from being moved back into those facilities from hospitals or elsewhere. The governor argued Wednesday that through his efforts Florida has fared better than other states in both confirmed virus cases and deaths in nursing homes and other facilities.

Yet too many nursing homes with their older, vulnerable patients remained deadly hot spots for the virus. With more than 950 confirmed cases in elderly care facilities in mid-April, the governor brought in the Florida National Guard to assist strike teams testing staffers and patients. But the outbreaks have persisted, with some nursing homes still struggling to obtain adequate supplies, testing -- and families frustrated by a lack of information about their loved ones.

There also has not been complete cooperation within the facilities. On Sunday, the Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates long-term care facilities, ordered that every staff member and resident must submit to testing when state teams arrive or the facility could face fines or have their license revoked. There should be 100 percent compliance, with residents and staff at long-term care facilities accounting for more than 40 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 in Florida.

Faced with mounting concerns, DeSantis on Wednesday recounted the state’s efforts to protect patients in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities and to promise increased efforts. But more has to be done. The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that the state has tested just 13,000 residents and staff at 150 long-term care facilities in the last month -- a fraction of the 150,000 residents in 3,800 nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate committee Tuesday that ''something more aggressive'' needs to be done in nursing homes. It’s obvious that all residents and staff should be regularly tested for the virus. The White House recommended to governors on Monday that all residents and staff at such facilities be tested in the next two weeks. The Trump administration should have made that a requirement and sent the states the resources to get that done -- because the chances Florida will meet that goal are less than slim and none.

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