Florida nursing homes required to let residents leave for holidays but not mandated to test returning residents for COVID

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — If you have a loved one in a nursing home, the holiday season could put them at greater risk.

Despite relaxed regulations, many facilities are still restricting visitors in an effort to protect vulnerable populations. But residents can leave, spend a holiday with their families and then return and potentially bring coronavirus with them.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, or AHCA, does not require facilities to administer COVID-19 tests or residents provide a negative test before re-entry. But they must allow residents to leave for the holidays if they so choose.

Federal coronavirus guidelines recommend against long-term care residents leaving for the holidays. Florida facilities are required to screen residents for COVID-19 symptoms upon returning.

Brian Lee, executive director of nursing home watchdog group Families for Better Care, calls the situation “very concerning.”

“It’s not the fact that people are leaving the facility,” Lee explained. “It’s what happens when they return.”

Despite screening, Lee fears asymptomatic carriers could contract the virus while away and then potentially expose dozens of high-risk patients upon return. He believes families should be afforded the chance to reunite over the holidays after a difficult year apart but that mandatory testing is needed for “holiday leave” to safely work.

Mark Shoop’s 92-year-old mother is a memory care patient at Freedom Village of Bradenton. He used to visit her every day until the pandemic hit in mid-March.

“It is a little tough,” Shoop said. “I did get to video chat with her on Thanksgiving day.”

Because of her physical state, he doesn’t have any plans of bringing her home for the holidays. But her neighbors could if their families so choose.

Data from the Florida Department of Health shows infections in long-term care facilities doubled during the month of November, and those figures likely don’t yet reflect any impact the Thanksgiving holiday may have had.

In lieu of mandatory testing, Lee is asking families to take it upon themselves if their loved one’s facility doesn’t offer voluntary testing.

“They don’t need to be super-spreaders themselves just because they went home to see their loved ones for the holidays,” he said.

But the safest holiday option remains virtual visitation, as Mark Shoop has done and plans to do.

“I think it would not be a good idea to remove her from the facility, even for a day visit,” he said.

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