Coronavirus Palm Beach County updates: County death toll at 114 as Florida reaches 23,340 cases with 681 deaths.
With the grisly discovery of 17 bodies at a nursing home in New Jersey, Democratic leaders on Thursday appealed to Gov. Ron DeSantis to release the names of long-term care facilities in Florida where nearly 1,400 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 126 have died.
“Transparency is key to accountability,” state Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said during a telephone call with reporters. “Not only is it important to stop the spread but to protect the lives of people working and living at these facilities.”
After refusing for weeks to divulge the names of nursing homes where infections have occurred, state health officials on Thursday released numbers showing that 1 in 5 of the COVID-19 deaths in Florida were residents, or possibly staff, of elder care facilities. To explain their refusal to identify the locations, they have cited privacy concerns.
While the pace of new confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida and Palm Beach County has slowed in the last week, those in nursing homes and long-term care facilities has more than doubled.
There were 23,340 confirmed cases of coronavirus statewide on Thursday, a 3.3 percent increase since Wednesday night, according to the Florida Department of Health. The 1,867 confirmed cases tallied for the county is a 4.7 percent increase in 24 hours.
The growth is much more dramatic in the state’s elder care facilities.
On Thursday, there were 1,394 confirmed cases among residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living centers, compared to 578 last Thursday, according to state reports. The number in Palm Beach County climbed to 120 from 60.
In Palm Beach County’s long-term care facilities, 24 residents or workers have died, compared to 23 in Broward County and 26 in Miami-Dade County.
Bill Sauers, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, likened the virus to a hidden weapon in facilities filled with frail, elderly people who are extremely vulnerable to the highly contagious respiratory disease.
“It’s like a hand grenade waiting to go off and it’s going to take out a lot of lives when it does,” said Sauer, who also participated in the phone call.
While a 33-year Wellington-area nurse died from suspected COVID-19, in Palm Beach County overall, the vast majority of those who have succumbed to the virus are over the age of 65. On Thursday, five more people, including a 59-year-old woman, were reported dead, raising the county’s death toll to 114.
Statewide, an additional 54 people were reported dead of COVID-19, bringing to 681 the number of people in Florida who have succumbed to the virus.
On its website that tracks the spread of the virus, the state doesn’t include non-Florida residents who die in the state. That means the state website under-reports the number of deaths on both state and county-by-county levels.
Even before state health officials began reporting deaths at elder care facilities, they acknowledged some outbreaks, including one that sickened 51 staff members and residents of a nursing home in rural Suwannee County near Tallahassee. But even in that case they didn’t name the facility.
The policy leaves families who have loved ones in nursing homes to wonder if their elderly relatives are at risk because the state isn’t giving them the information they need, Farmer said.
“Why would you want to send them to a place where they’re going to die?” Sauer asked, underscoring family members’ concerns.
Those concerns were magnified by reports of the discovery of 17 bodies piled in a small morgue at Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II in New Jersey. The staff became overwhelmed as COVID-19 spread through the 700-bed facility, police in the small town of Andover told The New York Times.
In all, 68 people have died at the facility, including two nurses, as the virus continues to ravage both residents and staff of the state’s largest nursing home, the newspaper reported.
Barbara DeVane, secretary of the alliance, said Florida residents deserve to know which facilities have infections. There are 691 licensed nursing homes in the state with roughly 84,500 beds. In addition, there are 3,081 licensed assisted living facilities with slightly more than 106,000 beds.
“What is the governor trying to hide?” she asked. “His ineptness?”
Since the pandemic began sweeping the state, DeSantis has said he has been “laser-focused” on protecting residents of elder care facilities, which also care for people with disabilities.
He barred visitors on March 14 and later ordered all staff, including custodians and cafeteria workers, to wear masks. That edict came weeks before the CDC recommended that everyone do so.
When problems are obvious, such as when the virus began spreading through the sprawling Atria Willow Wood long-term care facility in Fort Lauderdale, DeSantis said he dispatched a “strike team” of health workers to review what had happened and establish protocols to stop the virus from spreading.
DeSantis even suggested staff at that 180-bed assisted living center could be charged criminally because they had blatantly violated state health rules.
In addition, to curb the spread of the virus in nursing homes, DeSantis has enlisted the help of the Florida National Guard. Ten four-person teams of medically trained soldiers were sent to nursing homes in South Florida this week to test residents who don’t have symptoms but could be infected. The troops tested 500 people in one day alone, DeSantis said.
South Florida was targeted because residents of its long-term care facilities, just like its general population, has been hard-hit. Miami-Dade County leads the state with 272 residents or employees of long-term care facilities diagnosed with COVID-19. Broward, with 141 infected is second, with Palm Beach County third.
However, Palm Beach County is second only to Miami-Dade County in the number of deaths.
One of those to die in a Palm Beach County facility was 84-year-old Meryl Salkin, a resident of Vi Lakeside Village of Lantana. While officials at the sprawling elderly community confirmed a resident had been infected, family members said the outgoing business woman died on March 31 at hospice.
Despite the growing numbers, DeSantis insisted he has devoted substantial resources to make sure residents and staff of elder care facilities are safe. “Florida has worked very hard to protect our seniors,” he said at a press conference this week.
Farmer, along with state Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, and members of the alliance also asked DeSantis to reject a request from a nursing home trade association that would protect its members if they are sued in connection with their response to the pandemic.
The Florida Health Care Association, which represents more than 1,000 people and 600 elder care facilities in the state, has asked that their members be given sovereign immunity so their liability would be limited to $200,000 per patient or $300,000 per incident if they are sued.
Farmer called the request “blatantly unconstitutional” and “outrageous.”
Sovereign immunity, which stems from the English common law concept that the king can do no wrong, protects governments from liability and has as never been extended to private businesses, said Farmer, who is a lawyer.
The association’s claim that it needed “liability protection to render care without fear of reprisal during this difficult time,” is offensive, Farmer said.
“They have an obligation to provide care to their patients whether it’s a difficult or normal time,” he said. “Nursing homes have been compensated quite handsomely to care for them.“
Further, he said, DeSantis can’t grant the request. It would take an act of the Legislature, which is not in session, he said.
DeSantis has said he was looking into the request from the health care association.
In the meantime, he said he is focused on problems with the unemployment compensation system that has frustrated workers whose jobs were wiped out by the pandemic.
With little progress in breaking online logjams that have frustrated desperate unemployed workers, he this week tapped former Palm Beach County businessman Jonathan Satter, his head of Management Services, to fix the broken system.
Further, both DeSantis and President Donald Trump are assembling panels to figure out how to return to life to normal and put people back to work. Among those appointed to the president’s task force is U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.
South Florida epicenter
The congressman’s south county district has been hard-hit by the pandemic. As of Thursday, roughly 40 percent of those diagnosed in the county live in the sprawling area between Boynton Beach and Boca Raton.
With a combined total of 13,659 cases and 402 deaths, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties continue to be the epicenter of the pandemic in Florida. State records show 58 percent of the confirmed cases and 59 percent of the deaths are in the three counties.
On the Treasure Coast, 142 have been diagnosed in Martin County and 186 in St. Lucie County, with 13 deaths in the two counties. In Indian River County, 83 people have the disease, and in nearby Okeechobee County, only five people have been diagnosed out of 219 who have been tested.
Despite its ranking as the third most populous state in the nation, with more than 21 million residents, several smaller states have more cases than Florida.
Massachusetts, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania and Illinois all report more than 24,000 cases. Florida and Louisiana follow. New York, with 214,000 cases Wednesday, and New Jersey, with 71,000, surpass all other states.
The number of confirmed cases worldwide surpassed 2.1 million Thursday with more than 142,000 dead, according to Johns Hopkins University. More than 139,000 people have died. In the United States, the caseload topped 667,000. Deaths exceeded 32,000.
Staff writer Chris Persaud contributed to this story.