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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Transfers Eyed To Stem COVID-19 In Nursing Homes

As the number of deaths in long-term care facilities continues to steadily increase, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday the state will mandate that nursing homes transfer residents with COVID-19 if the homes cannot properly isolate or care for them.

It was not immediately clear how many residents might be transferred under the policy or where they would go --- but the governor’s comments suggested many infected residents could be relocated.

DeSantis, citing data about the risk the virus poses to seniors, has clamped down on nursing homes and other elder-care centers even as the state has gradually lifted restrictions elsewhere.

“We do have some facilities that have isolation. Negative pressure rooms where you could care for a COVID patient,” DeSantis said, adding, “Many of them do not have that. And, so, if they do not have that, you don’t have a way to keep this from spreading. So we need them to be transferred to a safe environment.”

DeSantis said nursing homes that are required to transfer patients because of the policy should contact their county health departments. The policy also requires that the nursing homes notify transportation providers and the receiving facilities of the diagnoses or suspected diagnoses prior to transfer.

The latest state numbers show that 454 long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities and intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled, had 1,539 infected COVID-19 residents as of Tuesday. Another 1,521 long-term care staff members had been infected, according to the data.

In all, those infections had resulted in 534 deaths, an increase of 37 deaths from Monday.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration notified nursing homes of the new policy in an email advisory sent shortly before DeSantis’ announcement.

Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes across the state, said she did not know how many residents could be transferred as a result of the policy.

The policy requires nursing homes with confirmed or suspected cases to have “dedicated units or sections, entirely separate and distinct from non-COVID-19 residents.” Depending on a facility’s configuration, a nursing home may be able to meet the requirement, Knapp said, noting that buildings can have separate wings and even separate entrances. 

During an appearance Tuesday in Sarasota, DeSantis also announced that his administration issued an emergency rule that will require hospitals to test all long-term care residents for COVID-19 before transferring them out of hospitals and back into care facilities.

“Any individual discharged to a long-term care facility does need a negative test regardless of symptoms, regardless of whether they even went in (to the hospital) for COVID-19,” DeSantis said. “And I think that that will help, because if you send an asymptomatic senior back, that can really spread inside one of those long-term care facilities.”

Long-term care residents who test positive must be kept in the hospital until they have two negative COVID-19 tests, according to the rule.

Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said his association, which represents public, children’s and teaching hospitals, was reviewing the rule.

"We share the state's commitment to protecting the state's most vulnerable," Senior said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.

Florida Hospital Association interim President Crystal Stickle said in a prepared statement that hospitals "have taken very seriously the responsibility of protecting all patients including our most vulnerable Floridians."

She said the industry has already implemented testing protocols aimed at ensuring patient safety. But those protocols don't require testing all patients, and Stickle's prepared statement didn't address the mandate in the emergency rule.

Testing of COVID-19 residents has been a source of contention between nursing homes, which say they need to know whether residents are infected before accepting them back, and hospitals, which would be required to provide the tests.

“We applaud that,” Knapp said of DeSantis’ requirement for testing.

Copyright 2020 Health News Florida