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Should coronavirus scare families away from Florida nursing homes?

More than 400 facilities impacted; 1,200 residents positive
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Posted at 12:47 PM, Apr 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-01 09:44:43-04

TAMPA, Fla. — As Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out his plans to reopen the state Wednesday evening, one industry still fighting against the spread of the coronavirus is Florida's long-term care industry. With nearly 4,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities caring for 155,000 residents and patients, the industry is still dealing with outbreaks.

"When the virus enters a nursing home, I don't think that is an admission that you've failed. This is the progression of the virus," said Kristen Knapp, communications director for the Florida Health Care Association.

To date, more than 400 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have reported a total of 2,500 residents and workers infected by the virus, according to the Florida Department of Health. While the numbers of positive cases inside these facilities is low compared to the total number of residents and workers who make up the industry, the spread of the virus among the state's vulnerable aging population has left many concerned family members losing confidence in the system ability to properly protect their loved ones.

Dana Battles' mother lives in an assisted living facility in Sarasota. Battles is in Ohio and wants her 88-year-old mother to move back to Ohio and live with her.

"I don't trust any long terms care facility right now," she said. "Bring her here where I can protect her and I know my house is safe."

Fifty days after the state locked down its long-term care centers, these facilities remain locked down with no visitors, no families and no plans to lift restrictions anytime soon.

Despite the grim picture, the industry is working to recover.

Luke Neumann is an executive with Palm Garden Healthcare and helps oversee the company's 14 nursing and assisted living centers across the state. Several Palm Garden facilities are currently battling COVID-19 outbreaks. But Neuman said the company continues to take measures to stop its spread. Every staff member and resident at all of their facilities have been tested.

"Everybody and anybody willing to take the tests," he told investigative reporter Katie LaGrone.

Neumann believes testing is the key to keeping the virus from spreading in his facilities. Knapp agrees.

"It all comes back to testing," said Knapp. "The more we can expand the ability to test in our state, I think the greater we'll have more information and to be able to make some important decisions."

But while the availability of tests and personal protection gear, including masks and gloves, has improved inside Florida facilities, Knapp said more is needed. She also expects case numbers to increase as the state begins to reopen other industries.

"As we see the state's curve continue to flatten, you may see the long-term care sector's curve go up because we are getting more information and we are doing more tests," said Knapp.

Some nursing homes and assisted living facilities are still admitting new residents, but for families seeking care and worried about letting their own loved one inside, Knapp said, "If you are unable to safely care for your loved one at home then it's really important you have those conversations with a home-health aide or assisted living center, depending on the level of care your loved one needs."

"At the end of the day, you want to make sure they're safely cared for, wherever that may be," she said.

Before you decide on a long-term care center:

  • Do your research
  • Talk directly to local providers
  • Take a virtual tour of the facility
  • Ask how centers are handling COVID-19 cases
  • Check facility inspection reports here
  • Look for histories of issues following infection control guidelines

Other resources for families seeking long-term care amid the coronavirus:

Contact the Alzheimer's Foundation
Contact your local Alliance for Aging

For ongoing information on COVID-19 cases inside long-term care facilities, click here.