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Task force helping Florida families get one step closer to visiting loved ones in long-term care

Published: Aug. 21, 2020 at 5:37 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Five months into a shutdown order, Florida’s long-term care facilities and group homes are now a step closer to reopening to visitors.

Two weeks ago, Governor Ron DeSantis created a task force to provide a plan on how to safely reopen.

That group has met three times so far; twice just this week.

The group is made up of six officials dealing with long-term and senior care.

The seventh member is Mary Daniel, the creator of the Facebook group, Caregivers for Compromise.

The task force is discussing two key issues: They looked at whether to allow outdoor visits, indoor visits or both and also discussed ways to clarify the March emergency order restricting visitation.

Daniel told the task force the order is creating confusion across the state with facilities interpreting it differently.

Sisters Jennifer and Mary Ellen have tried to gain access to their mother’s facility since April. The pair say window visits just aren’t cutting it anymore.

“She’s made comments; she wishes they had a pill that she could take and either wake up when this is over or simply not wake up,” Mary Ellen said.

Mary Ellen decided to take a closer look at that emergency order, DEM ORDER NO. 20-006.

The document outlines some exceptions to the restrictions.

One included, “Any individuals providing necessary health care to a resident.”

“This is exactly the position I had with my mom. Probably two to three hours every day, sometimes more. Every single day before the lockdown in March,” Mary Ellen said.

Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration has clarified the order further.

AHCA released a follow-up document that said “necessary healthcare” includes family members who provided assistance with activities of daily living prior to the emergency order.

“That clearly laid out what the Department of Emergency Management meant for the nursing homes and assisted living places to do with family that needed help. It was so clear,” Mary Ellen said.

But, what was clear for families, wasn't for long-term care facilities.

Looking through the Caregivers for Compromise Facebook page, Mary Ellen found hundreds of people in the same situation.

Many asked their loved one’s facilities about this exemption, but still being told they couldn’t come in.

“We’ve had this in place since the beginning. But I think the fear and, rightfully so, and the concern. This may not have been embraced, supported, as much as we believe is of value,” Florida’s AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew said.

But that wasn't the case everywhere.

“My mom went to the director and said ‘Look, they are my caregivers. They need to get in.’ And she agreed,” Patty Simmering said.

Simmering is also a part of that Facebook group.

Her parents live in an independent living facility in Pensacola. They were quarantined for about six weeks in March, but as of late April, the sisters have been able to visit the facility to help care for their parents.

"The doors are locked to the facility. They let us in and I show the results of my tests, that it was negative. And before you enter, we have to do, you know standard wear masks, standard protocol, take temperature, do all that. And I go straight from the entrance right into my parent's apartment," Simmering said.

This week, Daniel addressed pleas for clarity to the task force.

"When we see someone down the street being able to do something and my facility is not allowing me to do it. it's incredibly frustrating," Daniel said.

The task force acknowledged the need for more guidance.

Their focus is now to create protocols to allow for greater access.

That way facilities can have confidence about keeping their residents safe.

And families like Mary Ellen can have the chance to go beyond a window visit, to help care for her mother.

WCTV did reach out to the facility that Mary Ellen’s mother is in about their interpretation of the emergency order, but we did not hear back.

Besides creating definitions for essential and compassionate care, the task force also looked into allowing outdoor or indoor visits, or both.

The task force agreed any visitation must rest upon several criteria which include social distancing, hand hygiene and rapid testing, if available.

The group also emphasizing proper PPE. For outdoor visits, that could be any type of facial covering. For indoor, the mask would need to be surgical or medical-grade.

The task force also agreed essential care visits shouldn’t rely on a facility being COVID free.

Instead, it would be based on the number of "new" positive cases at a facility.

According to AHCA, as of Wednesday, August 19, Florida showed 82%, or around 3,200 long term care facilities, with no new positive COVID cases in a 14-day period.

When looking at a 28-day cycle, that percentage hovered around 75%.

AHCA said these stats are based on data that is self-reported daily by facilities into the agency's Emergency Status system.

The task force said this shows lifting some restrictions can happen.

They said the next step is creating a draft document with all the guidelines and then submit a final version to Governor DeSantis.

As far as a timeline, the task force not giving anything definitive, but saying they will meet again next week.

They expect this process to move fairly quickly, saying it won't take weeks.

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