WUSF Public Media – WUSF 89.7 | By Stephanie Colombini
Published July 29, 2021 at 12:52 PM EDT
An advocate for nursing home residents is criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration for not resuming daily reporting of COVID-19 case rates in long-term care facilities.
In April 2020, the state began releasing names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities where there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 after news outlets filed a public records lawsuit demanding the information. For more than a year, it shared detailed lists about which homes had active infections and deaths, and broke down the numbers between staff and residents.
“It just seems as though he wants to turn off the lights, go home and imagine everything is fine, but what we know is that the situation is getting worse.”
Brian Lee, Families for Better Care
The state stopped publishing this information in May, and a month later switched from daily COVID updates statewide to weekly reports. At the time, cases and hospitalizations had declined significantly.
But much has changed since the highly transmissible delta variant became the dominant strain in the U.S.
Florida is now recording some of its highest rates for new cases and hospital admissions since the pandemic began, and long-term care facilities are feeling the effects of the surge, though it remains unclear exactly how much.
“Florida, where there’s a governor who had promised to put ‘Seniors First,’ is failing to do so now,” said Brian Lee, executive director of Families For Better Care, an advocacy group for nursing home residents.
Lee sent a letter to DeSantis earlier this month praising his decision to prioritize immunizing seniors at the start of vaccine rollout and urging him to direct health officials to resume daily reports on which long-term care facilities have infections. He said he has not received a response.
Meanwhile the governor, while a vocal proponent of vaccines, has dismissed calls to ramp up mask-wearing and revisit some restrictions implemented earlier in the pandemic, recently referring to the upswing in cases as a “seasonal pattern.”
“It just seems as though he wants to turn off the lights, go home and imagine everything is fine, but what we know is that the situation is getting worse,” Lee said.
Federal data available
Nursing homes still report COVID case and vaccination data to the federal government, which makes it publicly available through the Centers for Disease Control’s National Healthcare Safety Network.
But Lee said information on assisted living facilities is far more limited as they are not subject to the same reporting requirements.
“For assisted living facilities, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s happening when it comes to COVID outbreaks,” he said.
The federal data is updated biweekly so it can lag by a couple weeks, whereas the daily reports from the state were better at capturing the real-time situation, Lee added.
The governor’s office and Florida Department of Health have not responded to requests for comment. The Agency for Health Care Administration acknowledged receipt of the request but has not yet followed up with a statement.
Organizations such as the Florida Health Care Association, which represents more than 80% of the state’s nursing homes, are advising facilities to communicate closely with families about outbreaks or changes in policy. But there have been reports of family members struggling to get information from long-term care administrators, or only hearing about cases after their own loved one tested positive.
“We know that these facilities are ground zero for the pandemic where it can spread like wildfire by asymptomatic carriers and can kill people very quickly in these facilities,” Lee said.
About 70% of Florida’s nursing home residents are fully vaccinated, according to the latest federal data. While this has helped bring rates of severe illness and death among seniors down significantly, the state still ranks close to the bottom in the nation for nursing home resident vaccinations.
The same is true of nursing home staff, with only 44% fully vaccinated.
Long-term care facilities have stepped up safety measures in recent weeks, with some increasing testing and restricting visitation.