Florida nursing home residents may leave, return amid COVID-19 pandemic

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, which has made a concerted effort to scale back restrictions enacted because of the coronavirus, wants to make it easier for residents of long-term care facilities to reunite with families for the holidays --- even it means forgoing COVID-19 testing. 

The DeSantis administration on Wednesday provided answers to questions that nursing homes and other senior centers have about the state’s visitation policies, including whether residents can leave for the holidays and whether they have to be tested when they return.

They don’t.

Instead, the state is allowing residents to return to facilities after being screened for COVID-19-like symptoms. If they don’t pass screening, the residents would be quarantined and isolated based on federal guidelines. AARP Florida already has raised concerns about a lack of testing.

MORE: US reports over 100K new COVID-19 cases for second day in a row, according to Johns Hopkins

“There is no restriction on the length of absence and it may include an overnight absence,” according to the document distributed by the state to long-term care providers. “Residents leaving the facility temporarily must wear a face mask, if tolerated by the resident’s condition. Eye protection should also be encouraged. All residents must be screened upon return to the facility.”

The administration made clear in the document about frequently asked questions that residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes for people with developmental disabilities and state institutions already have the ability to leave and that the policy isn’t specific to holidays.

LINK: CDC holiday celebration guidelines

The document came as the number of COVID-19 infections in the state continues to rise. As of Thursday, Florida reported a total of 827,380 COVID-19 infections since the pandemic started. Also, it reported 6,827 COVID-19 deaths stemming from long-term care facilities, mostly involving residents.

Dave Bruns, a spokesman for AARP Florida, said the state’s clarification is welcome news “for families who have been starved for opportunities to spend time together. However, unless Florida long-term care facilities can offer reliable, rapid-result testing as residents return to elder-care facilities, this act of compassion could turn deadly dangerous as we move deeper into winter.”

The federal government has been giving Florida nursing homes rapid COVID-19 testing kits and has been requiring the facilities to test residents and staff members routinely, based on the percentages of COVID-19 cases in the communities where the facilities are located.

But other long-term care providers, such as assisted living facilities and group homes for people with developmental disabilities, have not been receiving those test kits unless they have what is called a CLIA license.

“As AARP Florida has said since March 2, establishing reliable, uniform, rapid-result testing is the only way we can protect our most frail and vulnerable Floridians,” Bruns said. “Florida has made many good efforts. But no state, including Florida, has done well enough at protecting our elders.” 

The DeSantis administration imposed a ban on visitors to long-term care facilities in the spring to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions.

LINK: County-by-county Florida coronavirus cases and ZIP code map

The administration lifted the ban on visitors in early September, allowing for visitation in certain facilities so long as they had low COVID-19 rates. The policy also allowed “essential” caregivers to visit residents regardless of COVID-19 infection rates. Essential caregivers also were authorized to touch the residents, a move that was opposed by Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees. 

The policy was recently updated to allow outdoor visitation at nursing homes regardless of COVID-19 infection rates.

The administration has reversed policies such as mandatory testing of all long-term care staff members and isolating infected residents in building wings or separate facilities.

Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said the policy about residents leaving facilities returns the state to pre-COVID 19 operations.

“Pre-COVID, residents were always allowed to leave to be home with loved ones for the holidays  so, yes, this is another return to normal,” Knapp told The News Service of Florida. “We had several care centers asking about this as family members had requested it.”

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Florida Senior Living Association President Gail Matillo said her group, which represents large assisted living facilities, is pleased with the policy but is wary of the second wave of COVID-19.

“We are concerned about the second wave, and we are reminding our members to remain safe,” she said.

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 covid-19@flhealth.gov. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

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