Counties get serious about getting ahead of COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities

The fight against COVID-19 in long-term care facilities is an ongoing battle.

Statewide, 95% of all virus deaths are people over the age of 55, with nursing home residents and staff accounting for 43% of all deaths attributed to COVID-19 positive – and the number keeps creeping higher.

Pinellas County launched a taskforce a few weeks ago to work directly with long-term care facilities on infection control and protection.

Now, Hillsborough County announced officials are teaming up to also make sure COVID-19 cases in nursing homes are contained.

As soon as one resident or worker at a long-term care facility tests positive for COVID-19, the Department of Health gets involved, but Hillsborough and Pinellas officials decided to get ahead of the curve and partner with the Florida Department of Health to try and prevent the spread.

PREVIOUS: More than 30 residents of Pinellas Park nursing home positive for COVID-19; officials say most asymptomatic

“We have our long-term care task force, in partnership with the nursing homes and with the fire departments just to make sure everything is being done just to prevent the spread within that confined space and also because it's a very vulnerable population,” said Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton.

Pinellas County Fire-EMS crews are visiting every single nursing home to conduct inspections, train staff, assist in isolation efforts, and, when necessary, transfer people out.

“We’re helping provide manpower so they can get into these facilities and provide them with training, help them to implement the CDC guidelines,” St. Pete Fire Rescue division chief Ian Womack said.

MORE: Emergency policymakers in Hillsborough County extend local state of emergency

In Hillsborough County, emergency and healthcare officials are joining forces to give long-term care facilities more support, creating a long-term care facility rapid response task force.

“We worked out yesterday and today a plan to immediately get in and start testing staff and residents.  EOC and AHCA have already contacted state emergency management to access additional testing kits,” explained Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.

PREVIOUS: Florida launches new testing mandates as COVID-19 spreads through nursing homes

State officials said Thursday they are working with Hillsborough County leaders to develop a dedicated COVID-19 nursing facility that can take on residents from other centers who are sick but don’t need to go to the hospital. Others are being developed across the state.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration has issued emergency rules for eldercare centers over the last few weeks, requiring COVID-19 testing for any patients re-entering a facility from the hospital and mandating all staff be tested if a strike team is on campus. The agency also put forth guidance for when someone needs to be moved out of a nursing home.

“If they have positive cases and are unable to adequately isolate those residents and follow all CDC guidelines in terms of protections and infection control, they’re expected to transfer those residents,” said AHCA deputy secretary Molly McKinstry.

SARASOTA: Everyone -- symptomatic or not -- urged to get COVID-19 test at Sarasota drive-through site

The Florida Department of Health has also partnered with a private lab that will solely focus on processing coronavirus tests from long-term care facilities.

“This is a united, unified effort that is to support, monitor, test and respond to any known identified cases in these facilities,” said Dr. Douglas Holt, from the FL DOH Hillsborough County.

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

CORONAVIRUS IN FLORIDA: What you need to know


Map of known COVID-19 cases:

MOBILE APP USERS: Click here for map