‘It’s a good day': Many local families pleased with task force recommendations

Governor Ron DeSantis has restricted visitations since mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 10:35 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Three weeks after its creation, the long-term care task force wrapped up on Wednesday, finalizing its recommendations on how to safely re-open long-term care facilities to visitors.

Governor Ron DeSantis has restricted visitations since mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Now, after almost six months, many local caregivers and loved ones say they finally see some light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.

“I just hung up from my mom because I call her as soon as we finish any task force meeting and I said, ‘Mom, it’s going to happen,‘” said Mary Ellen, who says she has renewed hope that soon, she won’t have to talk to her mom from a window. “When she looks at me through that window, she just has that look. When we hug like this, she’s just wanting that to be me.”

Physical touch; exactly what task force member Mary Daniel wanted to achieve for essential caregivers.

“People need to be able to hold their hand and rub their back and touch them again,” she said. “I think you will see great improvement in so many people with just the first week or two of those visits.”

Under this designation, Mary Ellen could resume helping her mom with daily life skills, like eating and providing emotional support.

All while wearing PPE equivalent to staff, the state’s surgeon general was supportive, but still expressed concern over the lack of social distancing.

“If individuals are bathing, feeding, you know, hands-on contact, that’s one thing. But if we start having people providing them emotional hands-on support, within that range, it’s the same concern that one would have with general visitation,” Dr. Scott Rivkees said.

As for general visitation, the group recommended indoor or outdoor visits, as long as the facility hasn’t had a new on-set of COVID-19 cases within 14 days.

Among the criteria: A limited number of guests, wearing a face mask and maintaining six feet of social distance.

Which means no touching. For now.

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” said Allison Leatzow, whose son, Andy, has mental and physical disabilities.

Andy lives in assisted living, so window visits have been their form of communication since March.

“He’s lonely and he wants to get out and do things,” she said.

Like other families WCTV has talked with, Leatzow understands why some facilities may fear letting loved ones in, even in a structured way.

“You gotta have that balance,” she said. “You’re trying to protect them from this virus, but then you’re dying from something else because you’re trying to protect them from the virus.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many on the task force.

“The clock is ticking for so many families about precious time with their loved ones and I am concerned that it will never be 100% safe because of either the next surge with COVID-19 or the next virus,” Mary Mayhew, Secretary of Florida AHCA, said.

Paul and Susan Rogers are feeling that time slip away as her mother’s dementia gets worse.

“These people have been alone long enough,” Susan said. “It’s time to let their loved ones be with them.”

Safe, structured and sustainable; those are the missions of the task force.

Families say those goals were achieved, as Wednesday’s outcome was an answered prayer after more than 160 days.

Again, these are just recommendations: Governor DeSantis gets the final approval, and there’s no time frame for that.

But, during a Wednesday press conference, DeSantis said visitation needs to happen sooner rather than later.

The task force recommendations are very in-depth. Here’s a break down of some of the key takeaways.

Essential caregivers must be people who provided activities of daily living and mental health support prior to the pandemic, or as outlined in the facility’s care or service program. They can enter a facility regardless of any current COVID-19 cases. The task force recommended residents can designate two people as caregivers, with no more than one visiting during a scheduled time. This person must also follow CDC guidelines including wearing PPE equivalent to the staff. Since the caregiver is wearing PPE, the task force recommending they be allowed to touch the resident, but always keeping in mind to distance as much as possible. This would also include ombudsman.

Compassionate caregivers are similar to essential caregivers except this role is on a more limited basis. For example, helping a resident deal with the loss of a spouse or child or going through a difficult transition. This would also follow similar guidance to the essential caregivers in terms of the number of designated people. Compassionate care is different from end of life visitation which is already allowed under the governor’s emergency order.

For general visitation, the task force recommends indoor and outdoor visits, as long as the facility has gone 14 days without any new onset of COVID-19 cases for residents and staff. The facility must have adequate staffing. Residents could designate up to 5 visitors with two people per visit. They must be 18 or older. They would have to schedule visits with the facility and take part in CDC guidance which includes wearing facial coverings, good hand hygiene and social distancing of six feet or more. That means, for now, general visitors would not be allowed to touch residents. If a facility has a new onset of cases, visitation is prohibited.

The task force also recommending to allow in hair stylists, barbers and medical services based on many of the above guidelines.

When it comes to testing, the task force recommended a facility can test visitors if they already have point of care testing at the facility. However, testing is not required for a visit, meaning a visitor doesn’t have to show a facility a negative test result before being allowed in.

FL AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew giving the task force data on Wednesday from the agency’s Emergency Status system. This data is self-reported by facilities. In terms of the number of facilities that had no COVID-19 cases among staff and residents, for 14 days, the number was around 62 percent or 2,440 facilities. To put this into context, Florida has more than 4,000 long term care facilities. Secretary Mayhew told the task force with their recommendation of also “no new onset of cases,” that percentage would likely be higher.

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