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Advocate Blasts DeSantis Administration For Not Releasing COVID Nursing Home Data

walker next to nursing home bed.
The state hasn't released daily updates about COVID-19 cases and deaths in specific long-term care facilities since May.

Brian Lee with Families for Better Care says federal data on nursing home case rates lags and doesn't cover all of Florida's long-term care facilities. He says the state is failing seniors by not resuming daily reports.

Updated 6:30 p.m. to include response from Gov. Ron DeSantis' office.

An advocate for nursing home residents is criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration for not resuming daily reporting of COVID-19 case rates in long-term care facilities.

In April 2020, the state began releasing names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities where there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 after news outlets filed a public records lawsuit demanding the information. For more than a year, it shared detailed lists about which homes had active infections and deaths, and broke down the numbers between staff and residents.

“It just seems as though he wants to turn off the lights, go home and imagine everything is fine, but what we know is that the situation is getting worse.”
Brian Lee, Families for Better Care

The state stopped publishing this information in May, and a month later switched from daily COVID updates statewide to weekly reports. At the time, cases and hospitalizations had declined significantly.

But much has changed since the highly transmissible delta variant became the dominant strain in the U.S.

Florida is now recording some of its highest rates for new cases and hospital admissions since the pandemic began, and long-term care facilities are feeling the effects of the surge, though it remains unclear how much.

“Florida, where there’s a governor who had promised to put ‘Seniors First,’ is failing to do so now,” said Brian Lee, executive director of Families For Better Care, an advocacy group for nursing home residents.

Lee sent a letter to DeSantis this month praising his decision to prioritize immunizing seniors at the start of vaccine rollout and urging him to direct health officials to resume daily reports on which long-term care facilities have infections. He said he has not received a response.

Meanwhile the governor, while a vocal proponent of vaccines, has dismissed calls to ramp up mask-wearing and revisit some restrictions implemented earlier in the pandemic, recently referring to the upswing in cases as a “seasonal pattern.”

“It just seems as though he wants to turn off the lights, go home and imagine everything is fine, but what we know is that the situation is getting worse,” Lee said.

Federal data available

Nursing homes still report COVID case and vaccination data to the federal government, which makes it publicly available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Healthcare Safety Network.

But Lee said information on assisted living facilities is far more limited as they are not subject to the same reporting requirements.

“For assisted living facilities, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s happening when it comes to COVID outbreaks,” he said.

The federal data is updated biweekly so it can lag by a couple weeks, whereas the daily reports from the state were better at capturing the real-time situation, Lee added.

Organizations such as the Florida Health Care Association, which represents more than 80% of the state’s nursing homes, are advising facilities to communicate closely with families about outbreaks or changes in policy. But there have been reports of family members struggling to get information from long-term care administrators, or only hearing about cases after their own loved one tested positive.

“We know that these facilities are ground zero for the pandemic where it can spread like wildfire by asymptomatic carriers and can kill people very quickly in these facilities,” Lee said.

Health News Florida reached out to DeSantis' office about whether it would resume daily reporting for cases at long-term care facilities as well as statewide.

In response, spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said the weekly reports published by the Florida Department of Health "contain important information about COVID-19 trends in Florida, and there are no plans to return to daily reporting."

Pushaw also touted the state's efforts to get residents and staff at long- term care facilities vaccinated. In comparing December, when vaccines initially became available, to July, Pushaw said COVID-related deaths in long-term care facilities have been reduced by 97%.

Pushaw also added, "The state has never and will never force the vaccines on anyone against their will."

About 70% of Florida’s nursing home residents are fully vaccinated, according to the latest federal data. While this has helped bring rates of severe illness and death among seniors down significantly, the state still ranks close to the bottom in the nation for nursing home resident vaccinations.

The same is true of nursing home staff, with only 44% fully vaccinated.

Long-term care facilities have stepped up safety measures in recent weeks, with some increasing testing and restricting visitation.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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