Elder advocates are calling them cruise ships on dry land: Close to 200,000 Floridians live in nursing homes and retirement homes, which could become incubators for disease among sometimes frail elders as the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the state.
The state Department of Health said that, as of Monday, 33 Floridians living in a skilled nursing or assisted living facility had tested positive for the coronavirus, the respiratory infection that has become a global scourge. At least three long-term care residents have died from the infection.
But that’s about all health administrators, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, are saying.
For about two weeks, journalists and elder advocates have pressed state leaders to release information about where long-term care residents and staff have been exposed to the extremely contagious infection. The DeSantis administration has alternated between No and Maybe.
For people with parents and grandparents in group homes, the frustration has been compounded by an ongoing ban on visitation related to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak
On Wednesday morning, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told the Miami Herald the governor was continuing to withhold the location of homes where residents or staff members have contracted the infection. DeSantis, she added, also would continue to study the issue.
“He wants to do the right thing,” Ferré said.
Florida is playing Russian roulette with elders' lives--Brian Lee, FFBC Executive Director
For Brian Lee, a former Florida long-term care ombudsman who now leads an organization called Families for Better Care, that’s not good enough. Lee says the state’s refusal to identify homes where residents are at risk is like “playing Russian roulette” with elders’ lives.
“This is the worst public health crisis in at least this century,” Lee said. “I stress the word public, because we are all affected. And the public has the right to know if these facilities are spiraling out of control into an outbreak. By not being transparent, it just fuels fear.
“The best thing to do is be transparent,” Lee added. “It calms anxiety.”
In all, Florida licenses 691 nursing homes, with about 84,448 beds, and 3,081 assisted-living facilities, or ALFs, with 106,103 beds.
There is no evidence yet of a significant outbreak in a Florida facility, though data released by the state may not be reliable: Neither DeSantis nor his health administrators have been willing to say whether large numbers of long-term care residents have been tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The state has not disclosed the number of additional known infections within long-term care facilities, if any, since Monday.
A deadly outbreak that killed 35 staff and residents in Kirkland, Washington, was the first indication of what the virus could do in a congregate community of largely frail elders in close proximity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which studied the tragedy, called it the “epicenter” of the novel coronavirus outbreak in that state in a report released Tuesday.