DeSantis to lift ban on visitation in FL nursing homes and elder facilities

Gov. DeSantis, looking distressed, talks about the toll of isolation on elders confined in nursing homes and ALFs. Credit: screenshot, ABC News video

Visitation in Florida’s long-term care facilities — which was banned for 175 days to shield elderly residents from coronavirus — can resume tonight, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday at a task-force roundtable in Jacksonville.

DeSantis said he would lift the ban by executive order by the end of the day. He said most visitors are to be screened for signs of COVID-19, must wear face masks, and must maintain 6-foot distancing — but certain people designated as “essential caregivers” will be allowed to touch and hug their loved ones. Visitation will be by appointment.

To resume visitation, a facility must be able to demonstrate it has had no new cases of COVID-19 among residents or staff for the previous 14 days, DeSantis said.

Forty percent of COVID fatalities have been among the elderly, with the death toll in long-term care facilities rising to 4,759 by Tuesday, according to the Florida Department of Health. The total death toll for all Florida residents is 11,374, according to the department.

Lock-downs of nursing homes and other long-term facilities were necessary at first to protect highly susceptible elders from the outbreak while Floridians learned mitigation strategies, DeSantis said.

But loneliness and depression through six months of isolation have been harsh on senior residents, he said, especially for those who faced death of natural causes with no family present.

“It weighs on me to think of the people who passed away, nothing to do with COVID … passed away without being able to say a final goodbye, so we had to do something,” DeSantis said.

He then started a sentence — “It’s difficult to think that some of our actions may have …” — but began to choke up and then fell silent for a long moment.

AARP’s Florida state director, Jeff Johnson, said in a written statement issued Tuesday that the goal of reuniting loved ones is laudable but that the governor’s safety guidelines fall unnecessarily short.

AARP wants the governor to require rapid COVID testing for visitors and staff, since infected people can spread the disease without showing any detectable symptoms.

“Many facilities in Florida now have the capability of conducting quick-turn testing, thanks to action by federal officials.  If state officials would supplement these efforts, it could be possible to provide quick-turn testing for all staff and visitors,” Johnson said in the statement.

“AARP recognizes that families of long-term care residents have been torn between two worries: worry that their loved one would contract the deadly coronavirus and worry that their loved one was suffering emotional, mental and physical decline from the forced isolation mandated by the state’s lockdown order,” Johnson continued.

“We all hope that this approach works. But we continue to ask:  Should we be trusting our older residents’ safety to hope?”

Also attending the roundtable in Jacksonville, Mary Mayhew, director of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, said slightly more than 3,000 people out of 154,000 in Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities are infected with COVID-19.

The Florida Department of Health tracks infections in long-term care facilities, and as of Aug. 30, there were 3,503 COVID-19 cases out of 138,951 total long-term care residents, which is a rate of 2.52%.