Florida long-term care residents can have visitors -- and hugs -- again

Wife of Alzheimer’s Disease patient worked on task force to re-establish visitations

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Florida woman who took a job as a dishwasher at her husband’s memory-care center to be able to see him during the COVID-19 shutdown said she is putting in her two weeks notice after the state task force that she is part of came up with safeguards to protect long-term care facilities while also allowing visitors to see their family members.

During an emotional news conference Tuesday, Mary Daniel, 57, of Jacksonville, and other members of the Florida long-term care facility task force described how family members will be able to see their loved ones in person at long-term care families, including nursing homes and assisted-living centers, for the first time in nearly six months due to the pandemic.

“I’m turning in my two weeks notice,” Daniel said with a laugh. “I’m going back to being just a wife.”

Daniel took a job at RoseCastle at Deerwood in Jacksonville to see her husband, Steve, 66 who has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Her story made national news and caught the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis who asked her to join a group to spearhead a way forward to allowing families to be reunited again.

According to the rules laid out by the task force on Tuesday, residents at long-term care centers can receive up to five scheduled visitors as well as see people who provide essential and compassionate care. Essential caregivers are those who provide health care services or help with daily life, including dressing and eating, while compassionate care visitors provide emotional support.

“As we look at that role and how important it is, we think about mental health and everything we do in supporting individuals, and because we have such a high percentage of individuals in our long-term care facilities who are suffering from depression (and) dementia that emotional support is critical to their quality of life to their health,” Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew said.

Daniel said she fought hard for compassionate care visitors to be able to hug residents. While general visitors will have to maintain social distancing during their time with family, certain designated visitors will be able to physically interact with them.

“It’s going to be needed as essential caregivers. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. We will be able to, as caregivers, will be able to touch them, will be able to rub their back, will be able to hold their hand,” Daniel said.

She said residents at these facilities are desperate for physical and emotional contact. Daniel described one woman at her husband’s care center who sought that emotional connection, recently.

“As I was directing her back to a room, I was leaving my dishwashing job, and I said ’Come on in here, let’s get to your room,’ and she turned around and looked at me and said, ’Will you give me a hug?’ Daniel recalled. “I almost didn’t do it. I thought for a second. ’Oh, I might get in trouble.’ I had a mask on, and I did I gave her a hug. And I said earlier, it may be one of the best hugs I’ve ever given.”

DeSantis laid out the other rules for visitors established by the task force.

Everyone must where personal protective equipment, including masks, and will be screened before entering the facility. The health screening will include a temperature check but also people will be asked about symptoms and what their recent activity has been prior to the visit.

“Have you been to ... a crowded private event or something like that recently and so that is a really good way to be able to try to identify anybody who may be asymptomatic,” DeSantis said.

All visitations will be by appointment and long-term care residents can designate up to five visitors, with two at a time seeing someone. These visitors will not include children, according to the governor, but he said that may change in the near future.

“We’ll see how this goes but I, personally, would be very comfortable with minors,” DeSantis said. “I think if you look at the way the transmission has typically gone, when every time they do sequencing studies, it’s usually the adult infecting the minor rather than the minor infecting the adult. Now, obviously, a 17-year-old would be more likely to spread than a 7-year-old.”

There are also rules for facilities before they can allow visitors. No facility can allow visitors unless 14 days have passed without the onset of a new positive case in either a resident or staff member. Essential and compassionate care visitors are exempt from the 14-day rule, according to the governor.

Mayhew said the current positivity rate for COVID-19 infections among long-term care staff is about 1.2%. Medical experts agree the rate should be below 10% or even 5% to for two weeks to show a decline in new cases.

“We have seen over a 30% reduction in the number of residents who are currently positive for COVID,” Mayhew said. “Again, (a) dramatic reduction from the peak, slightly over 3,000 individuals out of 154,000 individuals who are residing in our nursing homes and assisted living facilities.”

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