MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Manatee County leads the Tampa Bay area in deaths related to COVID-19.

Twenty-three deaths are tied to two nursing homes owned by the same company, Southern Healthcare Management.

During a Manatee County Commission meeting this week, an official with the Department of Health talked about the outbreak at the two facilities, Braden River Rehabilitation Center and Riviera Palms Rehabilitation Center. Officials believe staff spread the virus by going back and forth between the two facilities.

“Not only were those staff members working in both facilities but also going out into other facilities where we have since learned other persons have been testing positives in those facilities,” said Dr. Jennifer Bencie with the Dept. of Health.

8 On Your Side has been in constant communication with Southern Healthcare Management.

When we asked about staff members going from one facility to another, this is what we were told by Southern Healthcare Management’s Susan Kaar:

“Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, an employee of one center may have also spent time working at another center. However, once the centers conducted their facility risk assessments, Braden River and Riviera Palms were no longer permitting employees of the center to work at the other, and staff were dedicated to one single location. Neither center has been made aware by health officials of any concerns about their staffing practices.”

When asked exactly when staff members stopped working between both facilities, Karr told 8 On Your Side the centers would have initiated their risk assessment and evaluations on or about March 1.

Families with loved ones at other Manatee County nursing homes are now growing concerned about the safety and well-being of their loved ones. Mark Shoop tells 8 On Your Side his 91-year-old mother is at a nursing home across town with no confirmed cases of COVID-19. He worries about her every day and wants to know what state and county leaders are doing to keep the virus from coming into these facilities.

“I wish I knew a little bit more about what precautions they are taking. I don’t know the extent of the testing that these facilities are doing,” said Shoop. “It is a mystery as to why these two facilities in Manatee County have been quite significantly impacted while other places so far have been able to avoid the problem. There’s got to be some discrepancy in what is being done at different places. That needs to be examined and they need to solve that problem,” he continued.

8 On Your Side has sent a list of questions to officials with the Department of Health in Manatee County. We’ve asked what is being done to ensure staff aren’t moving between facilities and what steps are being taken to protect people in nursing homes. As of Friday evening, we are still awaiting a response.