Two Flagler County long-term care facilities are now in the midst of coronavirus outbreaks, just as the state announced it is eliminating its support of every-other-week testing of workers in such facilities.
The first outbreak includes 22 coronavirus positive residents and 13 positive staff members at Grand Oaks Health and Rehabilitation Center, a 120-bed nursing located at 3001 Palm Coast Parkway, according to state data.
The second outbreak is just down the street, where there are 11 coronavirus positive residents at Tuscan Gardens of Palm Coast, a 175-bed assisted living facility located at 650 Colbert Lane, Palm Coast.
Messages from The News-Journal left at both facilities went unanswered this week.
Both outbreaks come after Florida Gov. Ron Desantis announced on Sept. 1 that visitors would be allowed back at long-term care facilities. Under an executive order, facilities can open visitation to members of the general public who agree to socially distance and wear masks, so long as the facilities have not had any new COVID-19 cases for a 14-day period.
It’s unclear if either of the facilities had begun allowing visitors prior to the outbreaks.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Health announced two coronavirus-related deaths at long-term care facilities in Flagler County. Neither of the deaths were attributed to a specific facility as of Thursday.
Before this week, there had not been any significant outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Flagler County. There had also only been one coronavirus-related death at a long-term care facility in August at Flagler Health and Rehabilitation Center in Bunnell.
Gentle Care Assisted Living 3, Gentle Care Assisted Living Inc. 2, and Market Street Palm Coast all currently have one coronavirus positive resident or staff member.
In Volusia County, there are currently 44 long-term care facilities with coronavirus-positive residents or staff members, on par with numbers seen during the previous five months of the pandemic.
And now Florida, which embarked on an aggressive strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is stepping back from some efforts that Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted as keeping down the number of deaths and serious illnesses among seniors.
In recent days, The DeSantis administration has announced it is eliminating state-supported every-other-week testing of workers in long-term care facilities.
The argument is that the policies are no longer necessary, even as nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other congregate living centers reopen their doors to visitors.
The Agency for Health Care Administration sent an email last week to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities announcing that it had canceled a contract with the company Curative, which provides self-administered tests to long-term care facilities.The agency also scrapped rules that required staff testing.
The email followed a similar announcement agency Secretary Mary Mayhew made on a regularly scheduled weekly phone call with long-term care industry officials.
Mayhew said the rules were no longer necessary because the federal government is requiring nursing homes to test staff members under a rule it issued Sept. 2. The federal government also is supplying the facilities with rapid testing kits.
But there are no federal or state requirements for the state’s 3,111 licensed assisted-living facilities that offer more than 110,504 beds across the state.
And advocate Brian Lee, executive director for Families for Better Care, a non-profit citizen advocacy group dedicated to bringing awareness to the conditions of assisted-living facilities, said the switch in testing at these facilities may not catch asymptomatic patients or staff.
“It looks as though there's an expectation to use antigen-based rapid tests going forward but the tests the state labs are doing have better results and identify asymptomatic people,” Lee said. “Antigen-based tests do not identify asymptomatic people. There can be COVID carriers walking around. They will never be able to identify those people.”
Families for Better care has been advocating for months to have molecular-based rapid testing machines at every long-term care facility in the country. Florida officials recently ignored the advocacy group’s request for the testing machines when long-term care facility reopening guidelines were created.
The discontinuation of state testing has Lee concerned about the safety and welfare of patients, staff and families associated with long-term care facilities.
“This does nothing to help the residents and staff, again runs against what the feds are saying is going to be needed in nursing homes,” Lee said, explaining that the White House released a report recommending molecular rapid testing at long-term care facilities. “I think that the state is starting to expect the nursing homes to pick up the tab.”