Here we go again
Florida's long-term care facilities, once the prime target of the deadliest impacts to the COVID-19 virus, are now beginning to feel the pain of its latest wave.
"It's concerning, but we know what we need to do," said Kristin Knapp, spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, the state's leading nursing home association.
Knapp said a recent surge in COVID-19 cases around the state is being felt inside nursing homes. In some facilities, COVID wings are returning while in facilities in communities with high positivity rates, visitation is being modified.
Cases surge statewide
In just the last month, positive COVID-19 cases around the state quadrupled with community hospitalizations up in some areas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of Thursday, there were 12,467 positive cases reported, the most since Jan. 21 of this year.
Many communities are also reporting more hospitalizations. The majority of cases appear to be people infected with the more contagious delta variant.
Recently, the White House reported one in every five new COVID-19 cases reported was diagnosed in Florida.
Inside long-term care centers, the race is on to keep the caseload down.
"We don't want to go backward, our main focus remains on keeping our residents safe and keeping our staff protected," Knapp said.
Infection controls remain in place. Staff is still required to wear masks and screening is taking place. In some facilities, testing of staff is taking place twice a week instead of monthly, if community cases are up.
Knapp said the uptick in facility cases is minimal at this point with newly infected residents or staff reporting mild or no symptoms at all. It’s unclear if the majority of new cases in long-term care involve residents or staff.
Where's the data?
Earlier this summer, Florida's Department of Health stopped publishing the number of cases and deaths involving residents and staff in long-term care centers because infection rates were so low.
It's unknown if the state department will start publishing data again now that cases are back on the rise. Emails to the agency's press inbox went unanswered by the time this article was published.
While federal data makes some information available, it is not as detailed as state data and does not break down cases by county or by the facility.
What's next for long-term care?
Most residents in long-term care centers across Florida are fully vaccinated but most staff have not agreed to take the shot. Less than half of long-term care workers are vaccinated in Florida, representing among the lowest long-term staff vaccine rates nationwide, according to a report issued by the AARP.
Couple low vaccine rates, increased cases with a worker shortage crisis that has become so bad some centers are halting new admissions, the industry is facing a triple threat.
As a result, any talk of mandating vaccines for long-term staff isn’t even an option.
"I think it would be very difficult to mandate something that could potentially prevent people from considering long-term care as a place to work. That is just something we can’t afford right now," Knapp said.
Dr. Jay Wolfson, a public health policy expert at the University of South Florida, warns the surge in cases might not prove to be as scary as it sounds for those in long-term care.
He also believes policy changes are unlikely to change unless death counts among long-term care residents increase.
"Those people in the nursing home will be exposed to some positive people and they will get sick, hopefully, they’ll be mild. We don’t know enough yet, that’s the problem. The virus surprises us all the time," Wolfson said.
For now, families are being advised to be careful, continue wearing their masks during visitations, and, if you’re not already, get vaccinated.