By Charles Elmore

Even as Florida moves to reopen many businesses, COVID-19 deaths of residents at 18 long-term care facilities in or near Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton add to a mounting statewide toll that frustrates hopes to relax visitor restrictions at centers that care for older and medically vulnerable people.

By May 18, deaths among residents and staff at long-term care facilities around the state passed 900, state records show. That represented more than 40% of all virus-related fatalities Florida has identified. New cases of infection continue to emerge.
Stopping short of lifting a ban on most visitors, Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed concerns that isolation from loved ones comes with its own psychological and emotional costs.

“We’ve now been two months where visitors have not been allowed at these facilities,” DeSantis said May 13. “My view has been that I want to get to ‘yes’ on that. 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 roil a nursing home or a long-term care facility.”

State rules effective May 18 allowed gyms, museums, restaurants and retailers to reopen or expand capacity.

Officials have been grappling with what steps to take next with long-term care facilities.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, recommended to governors on a May 11 call that all residents and staff at long-term care facilities be tested as soon as possible. 

DeSantis said his office’s March 14 executive order banning visitors to the centers helped slow the rate of the virus’ spread compared to that in many other states. He noted that teams of Florida National Guard medics have tested 32,000 residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Senior advocates said the testing has not gone far enough to protect residents facing the highest risks in the pandemic, in a state with nearly 200,000 beds in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

“While there are encouraging signs across the state that mitigation measures have slowed the growth of the virus, residents and staff of elder-care facilities remain at serious risk,” AARP State Director Jeff Johnson said in a statement.

He called it “clear that the virus is getting into these facilities through contractors and staff. Only widespread, repeated testing will work. By testing only a few locations on a few occasions, we’re leaving too much to chance.”

One industry executive urged people to contact Congress to advocate for federal funding to meet critical needs such as protective gear and testing. He called for thousands of letters.

“It is clear we have made significant investments to help protect the safety and well-being of our residents and team members,” Chris Winkle, CEO of Sunrise Senior Living, said in a May 12 letter posted on the website of Stratford Court in Boca Raton. “But when it comes to federal funding to support this critical work, unlike the airlines, hospitality and other industries, assisted living has been left out of the conversation. And, the incredible efforts of our heroes, the team members on the front line serving our seniors, are going unnoticed.”

Records posted by the Florida Department of Health show Stratford Court with seven deaths of residents as of May 15, one more than a week earlier.

Eight resident deaths were reported at Boulevard Rehabilitation Center in Boynton Beach as of May 15, compared to six a week earlier, records show. The center’s website says it serves residents in short-term as well as longer stays.

Boulevard is “doing everything possible to limit COVID-19’s impact at our center,” a spokeswoman said. “Our professional staff are doing heroic work through this crisis, and we are adhering to recommended protocols and guidelines from local, state and federal public health agencies and medical experts.”

Ten residents and 10 staff members tested positive for the virus at Avante at Boca Raton Inc., and four residents transferred, records posted May 15 show. That compares to two positive residents who transferred and three staff who were known to have the virus as of April 27. One resident died, according to state records.

Other facilities with virus-related deaths the state reported by May 15 included Regents Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Boca Raton (7 deaths), Hamlin Place of Boynton Beach (6), Manorcare Health Services in Boynton Beach (6), Heartland Health Care and Rehabilitation Center of Boca Raton (5), Sonata Boynton Beach (4), Lake View Care Center at Delray (3), and Willowbrooke Court at St. Andrews Estates in Boca (2).

State records showed one resident’s death each at Brighton Gardens of Boca Raton, Brookdale West Boynton Beach, Five Star Premier Residences of Boca Raton, Harbour’s Edge in Delray Beach, Heartland Health Care Center in Boynton Beach, Parkside Inn in Boynton Beach, The Meridian at Boca Raton, and Ventura Health and Rehabilitation Center in Boynton Beach.

In all, Palm Beach County saw 96 deaths by May 18 among residents and staff at long-term care facilities, ranking third in the state behind Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the Florida Department of Health. The state agency reported 901 deaths at such facilities statewide, accounting for about 45% of Florida’s overall COVID-19 death toll of 1,997.

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