Florida Governor Lifts Ban on Visits to Nursing Homes

Margaret Choinacki, 87, who has no other family members left, blows kisses to her friend Frances Reaves during a drive-by visit at Miami Jewish Health nursing home in July. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) — At times holding back tears, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a lift of Florida’s ban on visitors to nursing homes and assisted living facilities on Tuesday, as the state inches toward normalcy six months into the coronavirus pandemic.

“We knew that what we were doing to protect long-term care facilities, while necessary, was creating a lot of angst, a lot of loneliness, a lot of pain for a lot of families,” DeSantis said during a roundtable meeting in Jacksonville.

In mid-March, the Republican governor issued an executive order prohibiting visitors in long-term care facilities and requiring workers to wear protective gear. Following a series of high-profile outbreaks in nursing homes across the Sunshine State, he also prohibited hospitals from releasing coronavirus patients back into nursing homes.

But in many of his press conferences over the summer, DeSantis lamented the plight of nursing home residents isolated from friends and family. 

“It was a very difficult thing to do,” DeSantis said of his March executive order. “Part of having a healthy society is understanding that human beings seek affection … people understand they have loved ones who are in the last stage of their life. They are not demanding a medical miracle. They are not having unrealistic expectations. They would just like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody.”

The governor paused and looked down for several seconds attempting to regain his composure.

“To think some of our actions…,” DeSantis began to say before motioning to another panelist to speak.

Three weeks ago, the governor convened a task force to figure out how to safely allow family members and caregivers into long-term care facilities. Nearly 139,000 Floridians reside in long term care facilities, according to the state’s Department of Health.  

DeSantis is expected to release an executive order Tuesday evening outlining the new rules, which take effect Wednesday. The guidelines include requiring visitors to first make an appointment before arriving and mandating protective gear such as face masks. They must also undergo a screening, including temperature checks. Visitors will be limited to two at a time and exclude children.

In addition, visitors will only be allowed at facilities that have not had a positive case of coronavirus in staff or residents for at least two weeks.

Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, who led the task force, said 60% of long-term care facilities fit that requirement.

“That first hug, that first conversation, rubbing their back and holding their hand will take away the pain we’ve all been suffering the last 175 days,” said Mary Daniel, another member of the governor’s task force.

DeSantis appointed Daniel after hearing she took a job as a dishwasher in a long-term care facility just to spend time with her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are going to see some cases, I know that, but I also want to be with my husband,” Daniel said, adding she is putting in her two weeks’ notice.

The Florida Department of Health’s latest update reported 7,651 new coronavirus cases statewide on Monday. Nearly half of those came from a private lab that released about 75,000 test results dating back to April.

The DOH will cut ties with the lab, Quest Diagnostics, over the dump of data on Tuesday, officials said. Without the test results from Quest, DOH reported 3,773 new cases.

Coronavirus cases have steadily dropped over the last few weeks and deaths are the lowest since June.

According to state records, 11,187 Floridians have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. More than 624,000 have contracted it.

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