Task force holds first meeting on developing plan to safely reopen Florida’s long-term care facilities

Pinellas County

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Before Florida’s Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long Term Care Facilities met Friday for the first time, an industry expert told 8 On Your Side it is too soon to end visitation restrictions unless the most accurate rapid COVID-19 testing is available for every potential visitor.

“We waited this long, let’s get it right for people living and working there and visit there,” said Brian Lee, the executive director of the non-profit Families for Better Care. “Let’s do it safely, correctly to preserve life.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down visitation in March to protect the most vulnerable from coronavirus.

According to the Florida Department of Health, 3,944 residents and staff members have died after testing positive for the virus.

Mary Daniel took a job this summer at her husband with Alzheimer’s’ memory care facility in Jacksonville.

“Why am I allowed to touch my husband as a dishwasher, but I’m not allowed to touch him as his wife?” she told the other members of the governor’s task force Friday during a virtual meeting.

Daniel is advocating for essential caregivers like herself to regain regular access to their loved ones.

“I am begging for urgency,” she said. “We can’t meet on a weekly basis. We can’t go 10 days without talking to each other.”

Also the former ombudsman for Florida’s long-term care facilities, Lee said he’s concerned the current person in that watchdog role is not on the recently assembled task force.

“The makeup of the task force is largely people the governor surrounded himself with this entire crisis,” Lee said.

While he said he is “heartbroken” that residents have been separated from their families for so long, Lee said a rush to reopen – even on a limited basis – could have devastating consequences. He told 8 On Your Side what he considers the key to unlocking nursing homes and assisted living facilities for visitors again.

“The litmus test I’d like to see as an advocate for residents, I would like to see molecular rapid testing machines at the door of every single nursing home before any discussion happens,” Lee said.

Lee said the rapid antigen COVID-19 test is not reliable enough because they won’t always identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus. He cited the FDA’s position which says if an antigen test is negative, a molecular test is needed to verify the results.

Daniel said she is tested for COVID-19 more frequently than every two weeks, which is the state requirement for staff at long term care facilities.

“So I’m actually doing that before I go into the facility just to be on the safe side,” she told the task force. “I do believe testing is our end answer.”

The next task force meeting is on Tuesday.

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