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Nursing Home Task Force Hones Recommendations On Visits

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
Panel Chair Mary Mayhew (top center) did not guarantee that the state would provide facilities with the testing kits necessary to test visitors.

It’s unlikely that Florida will mandate all nursing homes reopen to all visitors any time soon.

Instead, a panel appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed draft recommendations Tuesday to “strongly encourage access” and to “limit barriers to visitation” for two groups: “essential caregivers” and “compassionate visitors.” The recommendations also include that those visitors be tested for COVID-19, consistent with facility testing policies for staff members.

But Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew, who chairs the governor’s Task Force on the Safe and Limited Re-Opening of Long Term Care Facilities, did not guarantee that the state would provide facilities with the testing kits necessary to test visitors.

Video: Watch Tuesday's task force meeting (via The Florida Channel)

“Yes, perhaps there’s some opportunity potentially in the short term, but I want to refrain from being too definitive about that because of the costs,” Mayhew said when task force member Gail Matillo, president and CEO of the Florida Senior Living Association, asked about testing supplies and whether they would be provided by the state.

Mayhew added, “Ideally, we would want the essential caregivers, the compassionate caregivers, to think about how they could access testing on their own to support that requirement.”

The task force, which also met Friday, will hold its third meeting Wednesday to discuss the merits of allowing indoor and outdoor visitation to members of the general public and whether visitation should be limited to facilities that have been free of COVID-19 for 28 days, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees, a member of the task force, supports such a 28-day requirement.

Mayhew said she anticipates the task force will finalize the draft recommendations at a meeting next week.

Visitors have been barred from nursing homes and assisted living facilities since March in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying health conditions.

DeSantis appointed the task force and charged it with making recommendations on how to safely reopen visitation. It’s not an easy task: As of Tuesday, there were 10,437 long-term care residents --- including those in institutions for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities --- who had gotten infected with COVID-19 at their facilities.

The draft recommendations being considered by the task force would define “essential caregiver” as someone who provides a resident with health services or assistance with bathing, dressing or eating. A “compassionate visitor” would be allowed limited access as an exception to the ban on visitation, with the exception meant to help a resident through the death of a loved one or another difficult time.

While the state isn’t considering a visitation mandate, Mayhew said the goal is to ensure family members have access.

“Any limitations or restrictions should be extremely limited so permissive does not become too wide of a gate to deny,” Mayhew said.

But task force member and Jacksonville resident Mary Daniel predicted that nursing homes won’t provide access without a mandate.

“They are not going to do it. They are not doing it now, and if they don't do it, who do we get to call?” said Daniel who rose to national attention after she took a job at a memory clinic to be near her husband, Steve.

Brian Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Families for Better Care, described the group’s recommendations as reopening light.

“This is all a bunch of political grandstanding. What they are going to come up with AHCA could have come up with a long time ago,” Lee told The News Service of Florida after the meeting.

Lee has been critical of DeSantis for not appointing Florida’s long-term care ombudsman, Michael Phillips, to the task force. Phillips' absence, Lee noted, was underscored during Tuesday’s meeting when panel members discussed whether the proposed recommendations would allow ombudsmen to enter the facilities.

Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the Agency for Health Care Administration, told task force members that the visitation ban didn't apply to ombudsmen, who are trained volunteers who advocate on behalf of elderly residents in long term care facilities.

The draft recommendations also include that visitors be required to wear personal protective equipment and be trained on how to put it on. Similar to her position on testing costs, Mayhew did not guarantee that the state would cover the facilities’ costs of the equipment.