Florida nursing homes want immunity from lawsuits, prosecution in treatment of COVID-19 patients

I-Team analyzed three years of health inspections
Posted at 5:50 AM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-07 18:44:18-04

Florida's long-term care facilities are pushing for legal immunity when it comes to treating COVID-19 patients.

The move comes even as I-Team investigator Adam Walser uncovered 77% of Tampa Bay area nursing homes with COVID-19 cases have been flagged within the past three years by inspectors for infection control deficiencies, including “multiple cases of lice” and treatment of a MRSA patient “without proper personal protective equipment.”

Those deficiencies at local facilities were cited by inspectors before the current pandemic.

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The Florida Health Care Association, which represents almost 600 long-term care facilities, is defending the industry’s response to COVID-19.

“I think that we’re doing a good job,” said Kristen Knapp, a spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association. “That natural progression of this virus is once it spreads, it spreads quickly.”

Last month the association sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking for immunity from lawsuits and criminal prosecution related to COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities.

State records show the Florida Health Care Association currently has 28 registered lobbyists and spent more than $1.5 million on lobbying lawmakers over the past three years.

Four facilities could not be mapped out due to insufficient identifying information

Tampa attorney Kim Kohn, who specializes in nursing home negligence cases, said she believes the facilities should not be granted immunity.

“I don’t think we should have limitations and protections for nursing homes who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing in protecting these vulnerable residents and giving them a pass,” said Kohn.

The association would likely need a new law to get immunity.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said that’s not something he supports.

“We’re seeing that they’re not providing necessary supplies and equipment to their staff,” said Farmer. “We’re seeing that whistleblowers are coming forward and saying they’re not reporting what’s happening in their facilities right now.”

Farmer said a pandemic should not exempt long-term care facilities of their responsibilities.

“They are the last line of defense,” said Farmer. “They are the ones who are supposed to be protecting our elderly family members and if they’re not doing it, they need to be held accountable.”

Thousands of residents at nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been infected and hundreds have died of COVID-19. State reports show 30% of the Florida’s COVID-19 deaths were residents of long-term care facilities.

So many residents have been infected with COVID-19, the governor deployed 2,700 members of the Florida National Guard to assist.

Rick Mortensen of Pinellas County lost his mother to COVID-19.

Donna Mortensen, 98, was one of the residents of Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation who died of COVID-19.

“Having to make arrangements and write her obituary – it’s been very difficult,” said Mortensen. “My mom was an awesome lady and we’re all going to miss her.”

Mortensen says the nursing home provided limited information to families in the beginning.

“The person that was calling me said, ‘We don’t know who’s been told and who hasn’t,’ so I kind of wondered at that point if there was more than one case,” said Mortensen.

After weeks of pressure from media outlets across the state, including ABC Action News, Florida’s governor finally released the number of cases and deaths in long-term care facilities last week.

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“They need to inform all staff, all residents and all families,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis during a news conference last week. “That is required to do. If they’re not doing it, they’re not following the regulations.”

Mortensen said he later learned his mother was one of more than a dozen COVID-19 deaths from her nursing home, where more than 50 residents and more than 30 staff have tested positive so far.

A spokesman for Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation told the I-Team the nursing home follows all guidance from federal, state and local health officials and currently provides daily briefings on positive cases and measures to contain the virus.

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Full statement from Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation and Nursing Services

Throughout this pandemic, our residents and staff’s health has been our No. 1 priority and we have been committed to providing an open line of communication between administrators, staff and residents and have sent daily briefings with the most recent information we have on positive cases and the measures we are taking to contain and manage the virus. Further, we’ve immediately notified family’s if their loved one received a positive test.

Additionally, from the beginning, Freedom Square has been diligently following all guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and closely collaborating with local and state health authorities. This includes utilizing appropriate personal protective equipment, sanitation procedures and infectious disease protocols.

Our deepest condolences go to the family and loved ones of the individuals who have passed away; we are deeply saddened by the lives taken by this virus.