State bars various visitors to Florida’s nursing homes amid coronavirus threat

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by aides, discussed the state's efforts to contain the new coronavirus during a news conference in the state Capitol on March 11, 2020. Credit: Michael Moline

As the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus constitutes a global pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced that multiple classes of people, including recent international travelers, would be barred from visiting nursing homes.

Invoking his authority under an emergency declaration he issued Monday, the governor said the ban would also apply to assisted living facilities, adult family care homes, long-term care facilities, and adult group homes.

Among those also barred is anyone suffering COVID-19, the sometimes fatal respiratory ailment caused by the virus, or who has been in contact with someone who has; anyone with symptoms of respiratory illness; recent cruise ship passengers; and anyone who lives in or has visited a place with confirmed community spread of coronavirus.

Recovered COVID-19 patients would need to have tested negative for the virus in two tests separated by 24 hours. Others would need to wait at least 14 days from the date of their possible exposure.

“These are important efforts to mitigate the risk to our most vulnerable population to COVID-19 — which is our elderly population, particularly those who have serious underlying medical conditions,” DeSantis said during a news conference in the state Capitol.

No one may enter these facilities without undergoing screening for the virus — not visitors, not vendors, not staff, and not Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Adminstration, who has been traveling the state on an inspection tour.

“I have had my temperature taken, I have answered all of their questions, and I have been prepared to be comprehensively screened,” she said. “No one is exempt from the screening.”

DeSantis disputed the CDC’s inclusion of Florida among four states with community spread of the virus — meaning cases not clearly linked to overseas travel. He argued that a case thus designated by the CDC actually was linked to cruise ship support operations in Broward County, he said.

Additionally, the trend toward requiring state university students to switch to distance learning instead of returning to campus following spring break was extended system-wide, the governor said, to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

“I think that those were prudent steps,” DeSantis said. “Because you have the ability to do distance learning, they’ll be able to do that and not miss a huge beat.

Meanwhile, private labs corporations LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have begun offering coronavirus testing of samples submitted by medical professionals, and the state hopes to expand its own testing network beyond the facilities in Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa that authorities rely upon now, the governor said. The University of Florida is developing its own test, pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

DeSantis noted that, with Florida’s presidential preference primary scheduled for next Tuesday, the use of assisted living facilities as polling places could pose a problem.

“If it’s the residents in the assisted living facility [voting], obviously that’s fine. But you actually have some of these sites where the general public will come in,” he said. “We view that as problematic.”

Aides were working with local supervisors of elections about alternative arrangements.

A reporter asked DeSantis about the Florida Department of Health’s practice of issuing updates about new confirmed cases even in the wee hours of the morning. He described receiving an alert himself as the First Lady and their children slept.

It’s important to get the information out “as quickly as you can,” he said.

“You don’t want it to be reckless. You want it to be reliable. But I think that getting it out as quickly as possible … is the way to go.”