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As Florida reopens, the deaths quietly keep piling up in nursing homes

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 5/31/2020 By Carol Marbin Miller and Ben Wieder, The Miami Herald

Over the past week, elders living in long-term care facilities accounted for seven-in-10 Florida deaths resulting from the coronavirus, as the pandemic increasingly became a scourge of the old and frail.

Though the cumulative overall number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, the illness caused by exposure to the coronavirus, doubled this month, coronavirus deaths at nursing homes and assisted living facilities tripled. As of Saturday, 1,228 people at long-term care facilities had died from COVID-19.

“I don’t know of any place else in the country that matches this,” said Larry Polivka, executive director of the Florida State University-based Claude Pepper Center, of the seven-in-10 figure. He has studied aging and long-term care issues for decades.

“This should raise red flags about our need to know more about what is going on in these nursing homes that are producing these highest-in-the-nation percentages of fatalities, and our need to be really transparent about our efforts to respond to that and reduce the number of deaths, reduce the number of infections and keep nursing homes safe.”

“What steps are we taking, systematically, to contain and reduce this? It is our obligation to do so, because so many of these residents have no choice but to be there,” Polivka said. “They can’t leave. They don’t have an option. If we have any feelings, any sense at all, of obligation, we must protect them as best as we can.

“I’d like to see more evidence that obligation is more widely felt,” Polivka added.

New figures released Friday night by the Florida Department of Health show that, while new outbreaks of the virus are being reported at homes that were previously untouched, deaths continue to mount at facilities that already were hardest hit.

The Fair Havens Nursing Center in Miami Springs was one of them. Health department administrators halted all new admissions to the nursing home earlier this month following a blistering report that poor infection-control practices had created “fertile ground for the virus to spread.”

Since then, however, more have died — including five more fatalities at Fair Havens over the past week, bringing the total number of deaths there to 33. The 269-bed home has reported more COVID-19 deaths than any other elder-care facility in Florida.

In an emergency order, the Agency for Health Care Administration wrote that Fair Havens administrators failed to isolate residents with confirmed cases of coronavirus, or those suspected of having it. At one point, AHCA wrote, the facility transferred 11 residents known to have been exposed to the virus into bedrooms with roommates who did not have the disease — yet.

Fair Havens had been in trouble with state health regulators before the coronavirus struck. In June of last year, Fair Havens was placed on AHCA’s nursing home “watch list” after an inspection turned up numerous violations, including failing to follow doctors’ orders, failing to keep a safe and clean environment, failing to honor resident rights, failing to treat residents with “respect and dignity,” and using inappropriate restraints.

Residents of the home were considered to be in “immediate jeopardy” after one resident was resuscitated despite having a “do not resuscitate” order that forbade it.

As COVID-19 has ravaged long-term care facilities across the state, the agency has issued more emergency orders in May than in any month since April 2011.

This past week, the agency shut down a small assisted living facility in Miami that had allowed a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 to continue giving care to residents. More than half of the facility’s 12 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 after the facility failed to isolate a resident awaiting COVID-19 test results who had returned to the facility after being hospitalized with symptoms.

Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation and Nursing Services in Pinellas County remains the second-deadliest long-term care facility in Florida, with 24 resident deaths, and another death among staff, though the facility hasn’t reported any new deaths in the past two weeks.

The Tarpon Point Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Sarasota, reported the most additional deaths in the past week with six, increasing the total number of deaths at the facility to 19.

Saturday, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities passed a grim milepost. They now account for more than 50 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Florida, a greater percentage than in such hard-hit states as New York and New Jersey, but roughly in line with the percentages in neighboring Georgia and Alabama.

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©2020 Miami Herald

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