Gov. DeSantis defends state’s response to COVID-19 in nursing homes

Members of Florida’s National Guard help at a coronavirus testing site in Pembroke Pines. More National Guard members may be needed to become "contact tracers." Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More than four in 10 COVID-19 deaths in Florida have occurred at a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

As of Wednesday, Florida had 42,402 coronavirus cases, with 1,827 deaths, including 776 — 42 percent — among residents or staff in a nursing home or assisted living facility, according to the state Department of Health.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that despite Florida’s aging population — one out of five residents is 65 or older — the state has done a better job of protecting its older, vulnerable residents from the life-threatening virus than many other states.

Florida’s death rate from COVID-19 in nursing homes or similar facilities is two per 100,000 residents, compared to 51.3 deaths in New Jersey or 38.5 deaths in Massachusetts, he said. Here is Florida’s latest report on nursing home deaths.

DeSantis attributed Florida’s more positive outcome to his early steps to limit exposure of nursing home and assisted living facility residents to the virus.

In mid-March, DeSantis issued an executive order cutting off visitation for the nursing home residents. He also prohibited transferring patients who had tested positive for coronavirus into a long-term care facility.

He said the problem with the transfers — which occurred in states like New York — was that infected patients ended up in nursing homes that could not adequately isolate them, leading to disease spread among other patients and staff.

“This was this was a major, major concern from the very beginning,” DeSantis said. “Florida’s approach was [to] avoid introducing the disease into long-term care facilities and we drew a very firm red line.”

While Florida embarks on its “Phase 1” reopening of the state while still dealing with the outbreak, the governor said his focus will remain on protecting elderly residents, noting that 84 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in the state involved a resident aged 65 or older.

“I think those numbers paint a very clear picture of where we need to be dedicating resources and where we can make the most difference in saving lives and protecting people,” he said.

One area where Florida is falling short is on its ability to test every patient and every staff member in the more than 4,000 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in the state.

Federal officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, on Monday called for universal testing of all nursing home patients and staff across the country. But the federal government has not mandated it, nor has the government responded to nursing home industry officials who say they would need assistance and more supplies to carry out the proposal.

DeSantis said Florida is increasing its testing through a variety of means, including use of testing teams led by the Florida National Guard that can target nursing homes with problems. The state has also deployed a mobile testing vehicle.

The state requires COVID-19 testing for any new patients in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. And in a set of emergency rules released Sunday, the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates long-term care facilities, mandates testing of all staff in facilities it has targeted.

DeSantis said he is also looking for a way to allow nursing home residents to visit with family members and friends — an activity that ended with the governor’s March 15 order.

Isolation comes “at a psychological and social cost,” he said, and lamented the lack of discussion of about the “negative effects” of the mitigation efforts aimed at stopping the COVID-19 spread.

“My view has been, I want to get to yes on that [restarting visitations]. I just want to be able to know that we have procedures in place, that if someone goes to visit their mother, that two weeks later we are not going to have 50 infections,” he said.

Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.