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More COVID-19 Safety Precautions Needed in Florida Nursing Homes

A man in a wheelchair in a nursing home hallway
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When 12 residents of a South Florida nursing home died in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, the state took quick action.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) issued an emergency order requiring long-term care facilities to have backup power, and the Florida Legislature followed up with similar measures. Four workers at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills were charged with aggravated manslaughter.

But it remains to be seen what actions elected officials will take in response to the deaths from COVID-19 of thousands of residents and workers in the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As of late November, more than 7,100 residents and staff of long-term care facilities had died, representing roughly 40 percent of all coronavirus deaths statewide, state data shows.

Advocating for improved conditions at long-term care facilities is AARP Florida’s top priority for the Legislature’s next regular session, which begins March 2. 

“The facilities, hopefully, are as interested in learning from this as we are,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP Florida.

But many facilities and some decision-makers are pushing hard to grant long-term care companies blanket immunity for their actions during the pandemic, which AARP strongly opposes.

Shift to community care

After a months-long lockdown of care homes, the state began allowing limited visits in September, however guidance may change depending on caseloads and other factors. Get updates at floridahealthcovid19.gov/nursing-homes or use AARP's nursing home tracker.

When it began allowing some visits, the state did not require rapid COVID-19 testing. 

Anyone entering a facility should be required to take a rapid test for the virus, said Brian Lee, executive director of the Texas-based Families for Better Care, a nonprofit advocacy group. The technology exists, and funding is available, said Lee, a former Florida ombudsman for long-term care.

Other AARP policy goals include shifting the state’s long-term care focus to home- and community-based care. 

“The pandemic has dramatically demonstrated that we need to move into the 21st century of long-term care,” said Jack McRay, advocacy manager for AARP Florida.

The state has roughly 700 licensed nursing homes, with more than 85,000 residents, and another 3,100 assisted living facilities, with about 110,000 beds.

“The vast majority of older adults do not want to be in an institutional setting for long-term care,” McRay said. “They much prefer to stay in their homes.”

Family caregivers also need help, he said. About 70,000 people are on waiting lists for community-based care, so reducing the backlog is crucial, McRay stressed. Home- and community-based services are what older adults prefer; plus, they can save the state money, and the care can be as good as or better than that in long-term facilities, he said.

The Legislature should also raise staffing standards at care facilities, Lee said. In 2001, it passed a law mandating 2.9 hours of direct care per patient per day, but the long-term care industry successfully lobbied to roll it back to 2.5 hours. 

Johnson pointed out that this year, AARP ranked Florida last among states for overall long-term care. He hopes that the pandemic deaths will prompt overdue change.

“As dispiriting as it is to think that you have to wait for something awful to happen, here we are,” he said. “Florida can do better.”

Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Tampa.

More on Long-term Care

Heartbreaking Story of a Nursing Home Coronavirus Death

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