7960951675?profile=originalEven health aides allowed to enter the Carlisle are screened for signs of illness such as a fever by staff members wearing masks and gloves. ‘We don’t want anything to happen to our residents,’ Carlisle executive director Richard Tournesy says. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Charles Elmore 

A region built as a haven for retirees finds itself under siege from a virus with no respect for advanced years.


Area hospitals and senior-care communities have barred nearly all visitors and taken a host of extraordinary steps as state health records showed the first 14 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Palm Beach County all involved residents 73 or older. That ranked as the most deaths overall in any Florida county as of March 31.


7960951698?profile=originalAt Harbour’s Edge in Delray Beach, resident Nancy Flinn called herself “very supportive” of measures to stem the spread of the virus, even if they mean no more meals or activities in large groups and no visits with loved ones except by phone or computer.


“The average age here is 88,” Flinn said. “I’m in my late 70s. They’re handling each of us as a jewel that has to be protected.”


County deaths associated with the virus included eight men and six women ranging in age from 73 to 94, according to data the Florida Department of Health posted March 31. Three of them were known to travel, to Egypt, Germany, France and New York, and four had known contact with a confirmed case.


Among cities with confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, Boca Raton (103 cases as of March 31), Boynton Beach (83) and Delray Beach (72) all ranked in Florida’s top 20. Also reporting confirmed cases: Lake Worth Beach (37), Lantana (6) and South Palm Beach (1).


The virus poses a threat to everyone, but its most relentless pressure has fallen on seniors.

7960951479?profile=originalSouth Palm Beach resident Denise Bach takes clean clothes and prescriptions for her mother at the Carlisle Palm Beach in Lantana on March 28. Because the facility closed to visitors during the coronavirus crisis, Bach had not seen her mother in more than two weeks. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star


A 92-year-old man who said he lives alone in Delray Beach told U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, in a teleconference March 26 he was concerned about getting help buying groceries. She and others on the call issued reassurances such help is available.


Options include dialing 211 for Helpline Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, a telephone hotline designed to connect people with social-service agencies. Its services also include helping people who are feeling mental and emotional stress during the crisis.


Walking outside can be fine, but it is important to try to stay about 6 feet away from others, officials said.


“There’s no question for senior citizens and for medically vulnerable people, this is much, much more deadly than the seasonal flu,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.


All of this hits home in a region where the median age exceeds 65 in several municipalities, according to U.S. Census data that acknowledges varying margins of error: Briny Breezes (74 years), Manalapan (66.5), Highland Beach (65. 7) and South Palm Beach (65.6). 


Other local towns and cities also surpass the national median age of about 38 years old: Ocean Ridge (58.9), Gulf Stream (54.5), Boca Raton (48.5), Delray Beach (46), Lantana (43) and Boynton Beach (41.5).


Nancy Messonnier, director of Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said about the virus, “Starting at age 60, there is an increasing risk of disease and the risk increases with age. The highest risk of serious illness and death is in people older than 80 years.”


Even before a state-ordered visitor ban, the Carlisle Palm Beach in Lantana had undertaken a series of precautions to protect its more than 230 residents, from curtailing group activities to building up supplies of soap, sanitizers and wipes, said executive director Richard Tournesy. “We don’t want anything to happen to our residents,” he said. 


A notice on the facility’s website says new admissions and tours have been suspended.

Hospitals begin to adapt

Hospitals face their own set of challenges. Delray Medical Center, with 512 beds, became the area’s first hospital to ban visitors, on March 20.


“We are happy to assist our patients with virtual visits via their personal devices,” the hospital’s website said.


Spokesman Ryan Lieber added, “Our clinical leadership will work with families on an individual basis for compassionate care situations including pediatrics and end-of-life.”


At some hospitals, personal devices are also being encouraged for use by potential patients before they go inside the hospital itself. In addition, tents have been prepared on the grounds of at least two local facilities to assist with screening and other measures.


For example, a patient’s first interaction could be through a smartphone, computer or tablet at 400-bed Boca Raton Regional Hospital and 467-bed Bethesda East in Boynton, affiliated with the Baptist Health South Florida system. Doctors say Baptist Health’s Care on Demand app can be a potential “front door” for people seeking care.


“It’s very important that patients are advised properly, especially when they need to come into hospitals and emergency departments for care,” David Mishkin, medical director of Baptist Health Care On Demand, said in an advisory on the hospital’s website. “We can guide them through our tele-platform.”


Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said in early March that health officials expected “most individuals with COVID-19 will have a mild case” and perhaps 80% can be “home-treated,” the website noted.

7960952082?profile=originalStaffers in protective gear check in a patient at the Bethesda East emergency room on March 29 in Boynton Beach. The hospital is using an app to evaluate and advise people before they decide to come in. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star


Medical authorities nationwide have expressed concern that people with mild symptoms might inadvertently spread the virus in emergency rooms or urgent-care offices also populated with the “worried well,” making it all the more challenging to provide prompt treatment for those who might have more severe cases.


Hospital staff will employ “specific protocols when a patient does meet (COVID-19) criteria for an in-person evaluation based on their assessment on our tele-platform,” Mishkin said, referring to Care on Demand. “We’re going to guide them by notifying the facility, working with our infection control team and the Department of Health to make sure that it’s done in a very safe and smooth manner.”


Baptist Health spokeswoman Georgi Morales Pipkin said, “Some patients are able to self-quarantine, and others may need additional care, according to their condition.”


Delray Medical Center’s parent company, Tenet Health, said in a statement that it has “made preparations to handle the expected surge in patients presenting for emergency evaluation of COVID-19, and we have the proper care protocols to care for the subset of patients needing hospitalization while minimizing exposure to our staff.”


Meanwhile, Frankel told constituents, “You are the best defense against the virus.”


Keeping a safe distance from others, washing hands often and cleaning frequently handled surfaces have become familiar advice, with the CDC reminding: “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.”

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