At least nineteen long-term care facilities in Florida have either a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. The disease has already proven deadly at one senior care facility in Broward County. Four residents have tested positive for the virus at an assisted living facility in Jacksonville.
Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew says she has sent experts to the affected facilities. But citing federal privacy laws, the state has been reluctant to release specific details about which facilities have had confirmed or suspected cases.
Advocates like Brian Lee say that needs to change. Lee is the executive director of Families for Better Care, a national watchdog group for nursing homes. Lee also served as the Long-Term Care Ombudsman for the Florida Department of Elderly Affairs for seven years. He appeared on the Florida Roundup to discuss the improvements he’d like to see the state make when it comes to eldercare and COVID-19.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Tom Hudson: Do you think the state of Florida should release specific names and addresses of senior facilities that have confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections?
BRIAN LEE: The simple answer to that question is yes.
And the question is, why haven't they? I know I've seen the information that publicly has been stated that they're trying to protect the identities of individuals who are living in these facilities. And I can understand their concern.
But there are families, and there are residents who live in these places. They should know if there are potential outbreaks happening in any long-term care facility. This hedge of protection has been established around nursing homes to stop the visitation, to try to stymie this virus. It's the right move. As an advocate, we always want to make sure that their families have the ability to interact, and communicate, and visit with their loved ones. But right now, it's needed. I mean, this virus is lethal.
Tom Hudson: It's been a week since Governor DeSantis put a stop to all visitors to nursing homes, except for those in the case of end of life. Obviously, this doesn't apply necessarily to health care workers, but for family visits and friend visits. Is that enough? Are there additional steps that could be taken by the state and by the Department of Elderly Affairs to continue to try to build a moat around these facilities?
BRIAN LEE: Yeah, I like that. Build a moat. Yeah, they've got to keep digging. That's for sure.
Look, the whole idea is to try to keep our loved ones safe. I totally understand that. But what I saw on the directive from federal officials, and what I've seen with Governor DeSantis’ executive order, is the direction of this barrier, this protection. But what we need to have, too, has to be assurances that the families have a conduit, a line of communication to their loved one.
Tom Hudson: Along those lines, what are the rights of residents and families to know about the health of other residents in assisted living facilities and rehabilitation centers, in skilled nursing facilities that are the focus of this vulnerable population?
BRIAN LEE: They definitely have the right to have information about their loved one--if they're, especially, the legal representative advocating or acting on behalf of their loved one. But the nursing homes and other senior care facilities have to make sure that they're making every accommodation to connect families who are isolated, who are afraid. And the guidance written was not favorable to rights per se.
It said that the facility should consider allowing some sort of additional kind of telecommunication or offer other venues for communication. So there was a protection that was established, but with stopping at the visitation. The communication was not as strong as we would like to see.
And it could be better because right now there's no communal dining happening within these facilities. There's no social interaction. And so, folks are just isolated in their rooms. So, they're scared and their families are scared.
Tom Hudson: So, from a family perspective—from a family member who may have a loved one in one of these facilities—how are they to go about getting information at all, given the Department of Health's protections on privacy have stopped the DOH from releasing even the names of these homes or the addresses of the homes? Forget about the individuals that have tested, confirmed or suspected, but just even the locations.
BRIAN LEE: That just does that nothing but cause more confusion and even more hysteria. Public officials have got to be honest about what is happening. This is a global crisis. This is the elderly capital of America. We should know what's going on within our long-term care facilities. There are people that are living across the country, across the world who have loved ones in these facilities. They need to know what's happening.
So to hide behind that, "we're trying to protect the identities of individuals." ... They need to be honest about what's happening so everyone can take appropriate precautions. It gives people peace of mind to know what's happening because the longer that we don't know what's happening, the more problems could just snowball out of control.
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