Task force wants to open Florida nursing homes to visitors

Recommendations will be finalized, presented to governor

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A task force appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis will recommend that nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida begin allowing visitors after more than five months of keeping elderly residents isolated from loved ones.

The group agreed on recommendations Wednesday that come with a long set of rules and wide leeway for wary nursing homes on how to implement them. Critics expressed concern over what will likely be a patchwork approach that varies greatly among facilities statewide.

The recommendations, which will be finalized in the coming days before they are formally presented to DeSantis for his approval, come as Florida reported about 4,400 people being treated in hospitals for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, a decrease of about 140 from the previous day and down from peak levels of more than 9,500 five weeks ago.

The state reported 155 new deaths Wednesday, bringing the overall total to 10,872. That brings the average in daily reported deaths over the past week to 115, the lowest rate in about five weeks. The seven-day average in the positivity rate for the state’s coronavirus testing is about 9%.

DeSantis has repeatedly expressed support for reopening nursing homes to visitors, as he did again Wednesday during an event at Universal Orlando Resort, which reopened to the public in June. While closing the facilities was a tough call, it saved lives, DeSantis said at a forum on theme park business.

“The amount of pain it has caused families has been excruciating,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s going to be a great relief for a lot of our families who have had a really difficult time.”

Under the recommendations, visitors would be broken into three categories: essential caregivers to help with bathing, dressing and feeding; compassionate caregivers for end-of-life type visits; and general visitors. Each comes with rules about the number of visitors allowed, frequency of visits, protective equipment and social distancing, but all facilities must go 14 days without any new cases among staff or residents.

Over half of Florida facilities — 62% — have not had a confirmed new case since Aug. 11, according to state health officials.

The biggest sticking point has been over hugging and emotional support. Some task force members, including the state’s surgeon general, expressed grave concern.

“Masks, they don’t completely stop the spread of respiratory particles," said state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees."The closer you get, the more of a risk that is. This is a virus that heaps its fury on the elderly and it doesn’t take much.”

Mary Daniel, whose husband lives in one of the facilities, pleaded with the group to reconsider during Wednesday’s meeting, saying residents are “dying from loneliness.” She took a part-time job as a dishwasher just to be allowed to visit her husband, who has Alzheimer’s.

“My husband has a terminal illness," Daniel said. "He’s not coming out of there. I’m losing my very best time with him. ... What am I saving him from, a year from now when he’s incontinent? I need this time with him today.”

After two days of debate, the group amended its recommendations to allow only essential caregivers, but not general visitors, to get closer than 6 feet (1.8 meters) while wearing protective equipment.

General visitation should be limited to no more than five people and they must be at least 18 years old. Facilities will have great flexibility in deciding how long and how often loved ones can visit. Visits were encouraged to take place outside when possible, with an understanding that some residents are unable to leave their rooms.

“I know there are going to be people disappointed that their teenage child maybe going off to college can’t go in and see their grandmother and that concerns me,” said Daniel, who represents the group “Caregivers for Compromise Because Isolation Kills Too.”

“On the other hand, I think that starting off slow may be the key to success.”

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The last name of Mary Daniel has been corrected throughout in this version.

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Associated Press reporters Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.