Note: Three of the four COVID-19 deaths in Escambia County have been tied to nursing homes. However, the county SitReps should the EOC didn’t begin monitoring long-term care facilities until March 31. The current EOC reports provide no updates.
TALLAHASSEE — For weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis has warned repeatedly about the devastating toll that COVID-19 could have on Florida’s seniors and the potential impacts on nursing homes and other facilities for vulnerable residents.
New numbers compiled and released by the state show the true depths of the governor’s warnings. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths stem from long-term care facilities.
As of Thursday morning, 126 of the state’s 633 reported COVID-19 deaths were related to infections at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care centers in 22 counties.
The state releases reports twice a day showing a variety of statistics about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did not provide a death toll for long-term care facilities until Wednesday evening. In all, 1,394 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday morning involved long-term care residents or staff members, though the state numbers do not break down how many only involve residents.
“The fact that one in five fatalities started as an infection in a long-term care facility — and in some counties, 100 percent of all fatalities — demonstrates that the residents of long-term care facilities are among the most vulnerable groups of all in this pandemic,” AARP Florida spokesman Dave Bruns told The News Service of Florida.
The COVID-19 reports are compiled from data collected by the Florida Department of Health. The department did not immediately comment on the new inclusion of information about long-term care facility deaths.
But the inclusion came as criticism has mounted because of the DeSantis administration’s refusal to release the names of long-term care facilities that house infected residents or the number of facilities battling the alarmingly fast spread of the virus.
The number of cases in long-term care facilities increased from 81 on April 1 to 1,394 on Thursday morning. That growth rate is far higher than the roughly three-fold increase in overall cases during the period.
The News Service of Florida reported that federal health inspectors arrived in the state in early April to evaluate infection-control efforts at long-term care facilities in a “handful of counties.”
Federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma announced her agency was deploying the teams to conduct targeted infection-control inspections in areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed likely to have potential outbreaks.
The state, though, refused to disclose which counties the federal inspections teams visited. It also refused to disclose the names of facilities with infections and whether the facilities were nursing homes, assisted-living facilities or institutions for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
It also refused to disclose the numbers of facilities with infected residents or staff members, though DeSantis acknowledged the number of facilities with infections totaled 97 as of Monday.
AARP Florida has repeatedly asked DeSantis to release the names of the facilities, arguing that it would give peace of mind to family members and other people who have been cut off from visiting residents since March 14.
The Miami Herald filed a notice of intent to pursue a public-records lawsuit over that refusal. The Herald subsequently reported that the DeSantis administration induced the paper’s law firm to back away from the lawsuit, prompting the news organization to hire a new attorney.
Bruns told the News Service that the death-toll data is “more proof of why we need transparency about which facilities have outbreaks, and what they are doing in each facility.”
The release of the data also comes as nursing homes push DeSantis to provide protection from civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution as the industry works to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Florida Health Care Association sent a letter to DeSantis April 3 making the request.
The nursing-home industry group on Thursday held a 90-minute teleconference with Florida lawmakers to provide them with an update on the industry’s response to the virus. Spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said the association did not keep track of which lawmakers were on the call but said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, Sen. Lori Berman D-Lantana, and Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, asked questions.
In a press release announcing the conference call, the association noted that Florida has 3,700 licensed nursing homes and assisted-living facilities and that “fewer than 100” have had infections. Most of the facilities, the release said, “have had four or less individuals who are asymptomatic or have had only mild symptoms.”
But former state long-term care ombudsman Brian Lee doesn’t think that’s worth bragging about, as one in five deaths are linked to the facilities. Lee, executive director of the group Families for Better Care, has frequently clashed with nursing-home industry officials.
“Are we expected to just buy into the spin?” Lee said of the Florida Health Care Association’s comments in the news release. “That everything is copacetic and things are great? Look at the numbers.”