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Florida Has A New Advocate For Nursing Home Residents, As They're Set To Soon Receive Visitors Again

Davonne Irion communicates her love for her father, John Marsh, using her hands outside of the Suncoast Hospice Care Center.
Courtesy of Davonne Irion
Davonne Irion communicates her love for her father, John Marsh, using her hands outside of the Suncoast Hospice Care Center.

On Father’s Day this past June, Davonne Irion’s dad, John Marsh, was admitted to a hospital from his nursing home in St. Petersburg.

Irion, who lives in Clearwater, called the hospital to get his diagnosis. The woman who took her call asked her to wait a moment.

"It seemed like forever," Irion recalled. "She came back on the phone and said your father's tested positive."

Her father had tested positive for COVID-19.

"I could no longer continue the conversation," she said. "I was extremely upset because as far as I was concerned, when you told me my 90-year-old father, who's prone to pneumonia, has COVID, that was a death sentence."

Marsh did make it out of the hospital, and Irion saw him one last time. She has a photo of that moment. He's seen lying on a stretcher outside of a hospice facility. She’s about 15 or 20 feet away, facing him, as she forms a heart over her head with her hands.

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The nursing home where Marsh lived, Carrington Place, is one of 23 facilities across Florida that have agreed to take in COVID-19 patients from hospitals until they test negative twice, and they can then return to their own long-term care facilities.

The state's Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), which oversees nursing homes, calls these COVID-19 isolation centers. According to AHCA, these nursing home companies get varying daily rates for agreeing to take an older COVID patient from a hospital, depending on what type of health insurance they have. For those who have Medicaid, the facility receives $325 dollars a day plus what’s called the Provider Medicaid Rate.

When Irion found out that her 90-year-old father's nursing home was one of these isolation centers, she thought about moving him out, but decided not to because he had advanced dementia and moving could cause him stress.

How her father got COVID-19 remains unknown. Barbara Fleming grapples with this question, too. Her mother, Helen Hellinger who lived at Tamarac Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, also an isolation center, got COVID-19.

"How could this have happened to my mom who was healthy and happy and loved life so much?" Fleming said.

Both Fleming and Irion lost their loved ones before the state of Florida announced that it filled a position that sat vacant for most of the last year — the state's ombudsman for Florida's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. Michael Phillips accepted the position with the Department of Elder Affairs on July 28, 2020.

An ombudsman investigates complaints, and in the case of Phillips, he does so with the help of about 300 volunteers across the state.

"We are not a regulatory body," Phillips said to WLRN. "Our mission is to resolve complaints, not to point a bony finger of guilt at someone."

His predecessor resigned effective Sept. 20, 2019. About ten months later, the Department of Elder Affairs filled the position.

"Mind you, we are advocates for the residents," Phillips said. "We are not advocates for a family, we are not advocates for a facility. We are strictly advocates for the residents and their needs and their welfares."

Their welfare is especially delicate during this pandemic because COVID-19 spreads extremely easily, he added.

"It only takes one to foul up," Phillips said. "Everybody's minding their Ps and Qs and then some attendant just forgets." Masks can get hot eight hours a day, and someone "may have just dropped their mask down, and now there's a risk."

He pointed out, though, that certified nursing assistants do some of the hardest work in these places. They turn residents over in their beds so they don’t get sores, they shower and change them and they don’t get paid much. In Florida, the rate is roughly $12 per hour.

So they often work at more than one facility to make ends meet, and if they get sick, "can inadvertently transmit COVID from one facility to another, not knowing it, not meaning it, but doing it nevertheless," Phillips said.

Even as his role is to advocate for people in nursing homes, Phillips and the volunteers he works with have only been able to check in remotely. He wants nursing homes and other long term care facilities to make sure they have enough protective gear and that they wear it properly.

Soon, after all these months, limited numbers of visitors, including Phillips, will be allowed back into nursing homes wearing masks.

"They just would like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody...," said Governor DeSantis at a press conference on Tuesday in Jacksonville, as he choked up and had to take a long pause. He said he understands relatives want to be able to see each other as soon as possible, especially those who may be near the end of their lives. "I think it's difficult. To think that some of our actions may have prevented...," he added, and then trailed off.

In Coral Springs, Barbara Fleming would’ve wanted that opportunity with her mom.

"I would have loved, loved to see my mom again before she passed," Fleming said. "Would have loved to been able to hug her and tell her that I love her face to face, and that everything was going to be OK."

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Verónica Zaragovia