As more patients test positive for COVID-19 in nursing homes, the top health care leader in Pinellas County warned the County Commission on Thursday that more patients will be transferred from elder-care centers to local hospitals.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said an emergency rule from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration requires elder-care centers to transfer the patients to hospitals or another long-term care center if the elder-care centers can’t isolate the patients for treatment.
“They remain to be our top priority,” Choe said. “We may see some increased transfer of cases.”
Pinellas County has one of the highest numbers of elder-care centers in Florida. The state Department of Health reached an agreement with a private laboratory to process tests for long-term care centers, Choe said. He did not say whether all centers would test every resident or employee. The testing is expected to start within two days, and test results would take two days to process, he said.
Through May 13, Pinellas has recorded 273 positive tests in long-term care centers, records show. At least half of the 66 COVID-19 deaths in the county occurred in the centers.
During a discussion, commissioners raised questions about available testing for residents.
Commissioner Janet Long said the lack of information is troubling as the state moves forward to open back up for business.
“I am baffled at the lack of accountability on whether we have enough testing,” Long told Choe. “There just doesn’t seem to be any clear evidence to that question.”
Molly McKinstry, deputy secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, provided a brief update on elder-care centers. But she wouldn’t provide specific answers when Commissioner Charlie Justice asked what protocols Gov. Ron DeSantis would use to let visitors return to elder-care centers.
McKinstry said she would “identify precautions” and update commissioners and other officials later, adding: “We’re going to develop those with the governor’s office in the near future.”
Justice also pressed for answers on whether the health department is educating employees about the dangers of bringing the virus into nursing homes. Choe said the Agency for Health Care Administration developed a complaint form, but he didn’t elaborate.
Commissioner Dave Eggers called the government’s flow of information “very disjointed,” adding: “We need to do a better job for pulling that together for our residents.”
Long later added about state officials: “Nobody answers all the questions. All they do is beat around the bush.”
Meanwhile, Choe said the county’s Long-Term Care Task Force will continue to monitor the centers. The county and state created a group of officials to oversee the crisis at the nursing homes. Participants include representatives from the Florida Department of Health Pinellas, the state Agency for Health Care Administration, county leaders, first-responders and hospital officials.
When an outbreak occurred last month at Freedom Square of Seminole, the group held daily calls, according to assistant Pinellas County administrator Lourdes Benedict. Currently, the group holds calls twice a week or more when needed.