Florida considers nursing home visits during coronavirus pandemic, governor says

State to consider socially distanced visits, testing caregivers

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida may soon roll back on visitation restrictions for nursing homes and long-term care facilities to help families reunite with their loved ones during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic Tuesday at an eldercare facility in Jacksonville. He was joined by Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis and Florida healthcare leaders.

“In the middle of March, we took the step of suspending visitation into these facilities, because we fear that virus can be brought in and infect people,” he said.

Apart from restricting visits, the state has also boosted personal protective equipment supplies for long-term care and nursing home facilities and prohibited COVID-19 positive residents return back to their nursing homes. These measures are on top of the state-mandated two-week testing requirement for all staff and residents.

“Those measures have come at a cost,” he said. “Throughout the last four-and-a-half months. They have not had the ability to have family members, visiting them. They’ve not had the type of human contact.”

[RELATED: Florida reports near-record high COVID-19 deaths as state sees drop in new cases]

The governor and the First Lady expressed though these measures are to protect Florida’s vulnerable population but also take a toll on those forced into isolation and be detrimental to their personal and mental well-being.

Mary Daniel echoed their sentiments, saying it’s also taken a toll on her personal life.

Daniel took a dishwasher position at a memory care facility to be able to spend time with her husband while family visits are being restricted. Her story garnering national attention as she becomes an advocate for other caregivers struggling with the separation the pandemic has caused.

“I sit here representing hundreds of thousands of caregivers, it’s not just me,” she said. “We are desperate and we are lonely and we are helpless.”

Daniel said though she and thousands of families feel helpless, Tuesday’s conversation brought her hope that they could see some sort of relief and an end to the total isolation that their loved ones have experienced for the last few months.

“I am truly confident that we are going to be able to get out, get ideas and put them into implementation for the state of Florida. How we can make these loved ones, feel loved and nurtured and held and hugged again?” she challenged the group.

During the hour-long meeting, representatives bounced off successful initiatives including tablets made for older adults that include virtual environments and gaming activities that help with dementia and memory loss. Facilities have also used animatronics such as robotic dogs and cats to help curb the feeling of isolation and owner responsibility with research showing residents treasure their animals and have found comfort in this option.

Another option is the idea of a virtual hug that families can send as a sign of comfort to loved ones, though the idea is still in development.

Daniel commended the ideas as actionable and supportive but not the solution she was looking for.

“I love all these ideas,” she said. “I just want to make something very clear -- I’m looking for a real hug. I like the small steps I don’t mean to disrespect them in any way, but I don’t want anybody to be misunderstood about why I’m here. My goal is to safely, and as quickly as possible with the right guidelines, get us back to our families.”

Daniel said she wants the governor to consider socially distant visits, caregiver privileges and even dedicated days for visitation with PPE requirements. She also wanted healthcare officials to look into the feasibility of outdoor visits as to not risk bringing the virus into the facility.

“There’s just such desperation and helplessness that (we) will follow whatever rules and we will be the most stringent rule followers that you have ever seen because we understand what the risk is,” Daniel said.

The governor acknowledged Daniel’s recommendations saying they’re all viable options to look into. He added that the state may be able to include central caregivers into their testing operations at long-term care and nursing home facilities. However, he said it would be much more difficult to expand these operations to all family members.

“We have the federal government doing stuff for the nursing homes but it’s not going to be enough for every facility,” he said. “Some may have the ability to do that, others won’t so that’s why we got to figure out what can we do with some of those other ones and now.”

The governor also said he’d feel comfortable allowing people who have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies to visit loved ones in such facilities, saying they have proven immunity to the virus and are likely some of the safest visitors to allow in the buildings.

Though DeSantis said the workshop proved to suggest a lot of tangible options for families, he expressed with empathy that the state won’t remove restrictions without ironing out a proper plan.

“I think a lot of the family members understand that these are difficult circumstances and clearly they would not want policies to be done that would lead to massive amounts of people in these facilities getting infected,” he said. “But I think that if you have a way forward, I think that would put a lot of people at ease to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

On Thursday, DeSantis announced that the Florida’s Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long-Term Care Facilities had been formed in order to determine a path for allowing visits once again.