Conflicting guidance causing holiday heartache for Florida families with loved ones in long-term care

With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, many facilities worry home visits could mean a disaster.
Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 8:22 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - In October, Florida families expressed their joy after Governor Ron DeSantis revised visitation rules at long term care facilities that allowed residents to leave for outside visits.

In-facility visitation opened back up in September after a six-month shutdown.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates these facilities, even gave the green light, provided a facility and the family follow set protocols.

But with COVID-19 cases on the rise again, many facilities worry home visits could mean a disaster.

According to the Florida Health Care Association, as of last week, 99% of all residents in state nursing homes and assisted living were COVID free, along with 98% of the staff.

Worried this could change, facilities are now interpreting state and federal guidelines in various ways, leaving families with questions and concern that this holiday season may be the last with their loved one.

“A lot of us, this is going to be our last holiday with our relative,” Mary Ellen said.

After a year spent mostly outside her 84-year-old mother’s Blountstown nursing home, she’s exhausted.

“My sister and I talked today about how we want to make this a really special Thanksgiving for mom,” Mary Ellen said.

Their hopes are high after state orders detailed holiday leave.

“It was a great feeling, just to know that mom could get away for just a little while,” Mary Ellen said.

That feeling was short-lived after an email from their mother’s facility.

“Your family is more than welcome to leave at Thanksgiving. When they return, they will be placed in quarantine for 14 days and will not be allowed visitors,” Mary Ellen said.

Mary Daniel, creator of the group Florida Caregivers for Compromise, says this story is not uncommon.

With COVID cases rising again, she said facilities are interpreting AHCA’s return policy in very different ways.

“Everybody’s saying their own things, from flat out you can’t take them out, to flat out you have a 14-day quarantine, to you can only take them out for a couple hours. It really is quite the mess,” Daniel said.

AHCA’s question and answer guide states a returning resident must be screened for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms.

If they pass, no quarantine. If they don’t, then they’re placed in isolation.

Post after post on the group’s Facebook page showing frustration over the wide-ranging rules.

“You’re going to make this really hard on us to make that decision and that’s not fair. It needs to be a discussion,” Daniel said.

Susan and Paul Rogers said that discussion happened for them.

Her mother’s Tallahassee facility followed AHCA’s guidance.

“They’re just going to monitor her for symptoms on the way back,” Susan Rogers said.

The Rogers are now making a holiday safety plan.

“I’ve already talked to my sons. We’re going to wear masks around her. I’m going to have her sit at one end of the table and we’ll be on the other side. So we’re going to be super careful,” Susan said.

Daniel told families this year, home holiday visits are a family’s personal choice, so safety plans and strict CDC compliance are a must.

“The truth of the matter is this could be catastrophic,” Daniel.

That’s exactly what facilities fear.

Many facilities are deferring to guidance from The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The federal group also regulates them, going a step further than AHCA.

CMS suggests a quarantine period if a resident is away for more than 24-hours.

“It’s a tough situation. I think everybody’s doing the best they can. I don’t think a nursing home or assisted living facility is trying to be unjustly difficult. I just think that they’re extremely cautious,” said Emmett Reed, the executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.

The Florida Health Care Association said in-person visitation currently varies by facility, so it makes sense this would be the same.

But, for family’s like Mary Ellen’s, the different guidelines are overwhelming.

“Two weeks is a long time for someone mom’s age. And then Christmas comes. Just as she gets out of quarantine, Christmas will come and then what do we do for Christmas?”

A question with no easy answer as facilities fear a COVID spread and families worry this could be the last year to make holiday memories.

WCTV did reach out to the administrator of the Blountstown nursing home along with their corporate officials, asking how they created their rules. We did not hear back.

WCTV also reach out to Governor DeSantis’s office for comment twice and did not hear back.

WCTV reached out to AHCA multiple times including Monday morning for an on-camera interview or email statement.

We were told multiple times they were working on it, but didn’t provide a response by the deadline for this story.

As of Sunday night, Mary Daniel also emailed Governor DeSantis’s office, AHCA and Florida’s Department of Emergency Management asking for enforcement of their own rules, a revision, or to revoke them.

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