What’s Happening in Florida’s Nursing Homes?

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S1: The best way to introduce you to Mary Ellen klos is with this video. You can look it up over at the Miami Herald. She’s a reporter there. You can’t see her face when you watch, but you can hear her voice. You’re because I requested social justich thing. You are telling me I can’t come in. I said we are having you. She’s asking a Florida state spokesperson why she’s been excluded from a press conference with the governor. And this decision was made by who?

S2: Yeah, well, that was a frustrating moment. We we were having these press conferences in the emergency operations center where reporters were crammed into this room, shoulder to shoulder. And, you know, people were coughing and you’re thinking, wait a minute. They have covered. What do we know?

S1: Mary-Ellen asked to have press conferences in a bigger space so folks could spread out. Instead, the governor staffers just started inviting fewer reporters.

S2: And so I showed up and they wouldn’t let me in. So I confronted them and they said, well, you asked for social distancing and we are just accommodating.

S1: Your requests were socially distancing you out of the room, socially distancing me out of the room. That’s right. Mary Ellen had a list of questions for the governor that day about when he expected the Corona virus to peak in Florida, about how he planned to help health care workers who were getting sick and about nursing homes, which she worried were vulnerable as the virus spread. Only the governor had the data to explain exactly what was going on in the state’s assisted living facilities. What Mary-Ellen had were anecdotes from people like George Samaniego.

S2: He had, I believe, seen our reporting. He had written to our executive editor with his story about the death of his mother, which literally just happened in the last.

S1: Week George lives in Miami. His mom did two in a nursing facility called Residential Plaza.

S2: You know, as recently as last Tuesday, she was singing ballads and she looked healthy. The next day she was. They indicated that she was covered positive, but she had no symptoms. And then two days later, the doctor called and said, your mom’s not going to make it. And he was stunned.

S3: It was the hospice nurse who doesn’t work for the facility that indicated to him that that his mom was was going downhill pretty quickly. So he was able to show up. He kind of snuck in and he described her as unrecognizable.

S4: What do you make of the fact that it was a health care worker who didn’t work for the facility that housed his mother, that gave him the heads up that his mom was not doing well?

S3: Right. It’s just really troubling.

S4: When Mary-Ellen heard Georgias story as a reporter, chiasm really basic questions like how many other residents were testing positive and how could Georgia’s mom have been exposed in the first place?

S1: She hadn’t left her elder care home in years. The state wouldn’t answer. Neither would the assisted living facility where Georgia’s mom died.

S2: They told me that they couldn’t talk to me because it would be a violation of the privacy of this of their former patient, their former clients.

S1: Would they tell you how many other patients were sick or staffers?

S2: No. No, they wouldn’t acknowledge how they how many people were sick. And I asked them, you know, how could she have gotten this?

S5: And they couldn’t tell me.

S4: Today on the show, what happened when Mary Ellen and a bunch of other Florida reporters kept pressing the state to understand who’s been getting covered 19 and how they got sick in the first place, with so many long term care facilities on lockdown all around the country, finding out who’s becoming critically ill has never been more important. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: How many deaths in Florida have been linked to long term care facilities like this?

S2: So it’s interesting because we have been asking that question for about a month. It’s been it’s been a struggle.

S6: We now know that about one out of every 10 cases in these facilities have led to deaths.

S2: So there are 10 percent. Yeah, so. So one hundred and seventy five deaths in nursing homes in Florida to date. There are one thousand seven hundred and eighty five cases in nursing homes to date and nursing homes and assisted living facilities. And as we’ve been calling them, elder care facilities make up more than one out of five of all the positive cases in Florida.

S1: These numbers are shocking, but the process that Mary Ellen and her colleagues went through to get their hands on this information is also pretty shocking. Over the last several weeks, the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis, an elder care facilities themselves, have routinely stonewalled the press and the public.

S2: We know that the Department of Health is collecting this information. We also know that Florida has very broad public records laws. And so our argument has been this is a public record. Give it to us. But they have refused. So, you know, we we haven’t accepted no for an answer. We’ve been trying to get the information otherwise. We’ve been calling facilities, we’ve been calling families, and we have gone to the medical examiners and in various counties to find out what is the source of death for many of these old elders.

S1: But going to the medical examiners, that was sort of a work around where you thought. Exactly. We can’t get it this way. We’ll get it. That what happened when you called the medical examiners offices?

S2: Well, when we called the medical examiner’s office, the governor’s office fought us and told the medical examiner not to give us the information. And, you know, I have to say that I’ve talked to so many desperate families who are, you know, they just want to know if their loved one is safe or not. And then they want to put, you know, direct questions at the at the facilities where their their loved ones are and say, you know, are you doing enough precautions? How can we be assured that that they’re safe? We’ve got 303 of the thirty hundred facilities in the state that now have positive cases. That means there are hundreds of facilities that don’t have positive cases. And all those people are living in, you know, limbo wondering. So there is value in releasing this because it gives people peace of mind.

S1: So Florida, like a lot of places, has these hotspots of Corona virus activities. So when you first went looking for what was happening at these long term care facilities, is that where you started looking like at those hotspots to try to find what was going on there?

S2: The first thing we were thinking is that this is an enormously vulnerable population. Florida was one of the was the last large state to do a statewide shut down. There was the possibility that there were homes outside of South Florida, which was perceived as the hotspot that where where people might be getting sick. And we wanted to be able to track that. So we started to start looking at some of these rural communities that were numbers started to just really climb for no apparent reason at all. And it became pretty clear that it was very possible that these were in in some of these elder care facilities. And it turns out that in some of the most rural parts of the state, there are homes that that have had enormous numbers of positive covered cases and that the only reason that was happening is because the infection had gotten out of control in those places.

S1: Yeah, I mean, you talk about one town in particular, Live Oak, Florida. Is that a place where you or you found something going on? What did you find there?

S2: So in Live Oak, Florida, which is this very small town in between Tallahassee and Jacksonville in north Florida, there is a single nursing home there. It’s quite large. It’s got 180 beds. They reported huge spikes in cases. And we had no way of knowing this, of course, because the state wasn’t reporting it. But the governor, he first announced that he was designating the National Guard to come in and do aggressive testing at nursing homes that had high positive rates, but they wouldn’t tell us which nursing homes they were sending the National Guard in. So the next day, he he acknowledged that there was one nursing home that had 51 cases of covered 30 members of its staff and 21 residents. Well, that number is still grown has grown since. That was I think he announced this on Monday. Now, now that number is closer to 70. And so if you can imagine, 30 members of the staff who’ve been tested positive. That is so enormously disruptive and crazy.

S1: It’s just it’s a huge number.

S2: It’s so it’s so crazy. So I you know, I started scrambling around and I found a county or a city council member who lives down the road from the nursing home. And he was outraged by this. He had a relative or a friend who had a relative in the home. And he was very concerned that that the community and and that the home itself was not taking this seriously. So he started to talk about it and kind of shook the tree a bit. And I think that’s what led to the governor finally acknowledging that this was a bigger problem than than they had admitted.

S1: But, of course, he still wouldn’t give you the actual information.

S2: That’s right. And and when we tried to reach out to the owner of the facility, which is it’s a chain that’s based in Pensacola, they wouldn’t acknowledge our questions either. Just didn’t return our phone calls. So scary.

S1: You’ve talked a little bit about how this information can be powerful because it can make people feel safer. They can know that their family members are at a place that does not have a positive coronavirus test. Among someone who works there were among the residents. But I’m I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about what this information means for not just families, but other members of the community, like. I read I read something where you were explaining how a sheriff talked about how having no information about these positive tests changed the way that law enforcement did their work.

S2: That’s right. You know, when when the state was not releasing where the positive cases were. It has a tremendous impact on anybody in that community. Number one, there are you know, if you have an elder care facility, there are going to be people who take a turn for the worse and they need an ambulance to come and assist them. So there are first responders that come. Well, I talked to a sheriff in Volusia County who who did not have any idea as to who was which nursing homes had positive cases. And so he and his paramedics had to treat every nursing home as if there were positive cases, which meant they had to put on full gear, protective gear, wear face masks at every every time they were called to one of dozens of homes in their county. That has huge implications. And so I think he he was persuasive, I think, in getting the county at least to release him the numbers as to which facilities had positive cases. But the state was still not releasing those numbers. So it yeah, it has a ripple effect on on law enforcement, on first responders. And then there’s just the other side of of people in the community. What if you’re going into a nursing home to fix the air conditioner or, you know, to to provide food service or something? People people need to be informed about what kinds of precautions to be taking eventually.

S1: Mary Ellen and her colleagues at the Miami Herald decided to push back a little harder against the state silence. They threatened to file a lawsuit using the state’s public records law. The first step was giving the governor five days notice.

S2: The Miami Herald gave five days notice, and that’s when the governor office called our lawyer and basically reminded them that the law firm that he worked for had quite a bit of state business and encouraged him to drop the lawsuit. And he did.

S1: I have never heard of anything like that happening in my career in journalism.

S2: Yeah, it worked. It basically worked. So we found another law firm. A brilliant, wonderful law firm. And they put together the case for us again. And they and we also at this point then got a huge contingent of other news organizations from across the state, including New York Times and Washington Post and media chains from all across the country. And as each one joined, we got another five day notice. So by the end of the week, our notice hadn’t run out. And then it was yesterday. On Saturday, the governor announced that he was going to release the names. So that has put a hold on our lawsuit. But I don’t think we have decided that we’re not going to pursue it completely. Why not? And the reason it is that the governor’s office has given us the names of the facilities, but we still don’t know how bad the problem is, essentially. So we don’t know if it was staff or residents who were tested positive. We don’t know how many per facility there is. Still isn’t is more information the Department of Health has collected that they’re not releasing.

S7: And we argue we’re not looking for the names of anyone. We’re not trying to invade anyone’s privacy. We’re just trying to get the public record that the state is collecting and have them turn it over.

S1: Something I don’t understand. Why would the state fight so hard to withhold this information, because it doesn’t reflect on anything the state has or hasn’t done necessarily. It might reflect on the facilities themselves and and what kind of procedures they’ve put into place.

S2: That’s a really good question. I mean, I think that it comes down to why does somebody want this information hidden from the public? And, you know, in on a parallel track, as we have been seeking this information, the Elder Care Associations, Florida Health Care Association and a couple of others that represent these giant chains sent a letter to the governor asking them, asking the governor to extend sovereign immunity so that they could be immune from any lawsuit for any negligent act during the colvard crisis. So, in other words, if they had done anything that would have made them liable for someone’s death, they wanted to have immunity for it. So if you think about why they don’t want these numbers out there, this information out there, it may be to shield them from what they think is an inevitable lawsuit or blame. Now, the governor has claimed that he has not made a decision on whether to give them immunity or not, but he has noted that other states have done something similar. But we’ll see. We’ll see where this all heads.

S1: Yeah, I think it’s worth talking about just the Florida ness of this story. I was looking at your paper and saw this headline from Sunday’s edition. Florida governor keeps key information secret. And it was about not just this nursing home data, but all sorts of data about what’s happening in the state’s prison or other places. It seems like the story of what’s happening in the long term care facilities. There’s just something bigger here happening with the administration generally.

S2: I think it’s not unique to Florida, where they have not operated as transparently as they could, but I think it’s a fundamental flaw in their thinking the way they have messaged this, because right now we have so few tools as a society to arm ourselves against this virus that the least they could do is give us information. And this governor has repeatedly refused to give information until pushed. And so it took a long time for them to finally release information on how many deaths and cases there were in the prison system. And we finally have them at least reporting that we had to do another fight to get information on how many minorities were being tested. And they’re finally releasing that information. It took another fight for us to get information on on the delay in testing, because 90 percent of the testing in Florida is done by private labs and they’re not including those numbers when they report the numbers that they’re waiting on, the results they’re waiting on. So everything we see is an undercount and they won’t tell us. What they know is the undercount is. So, you know, it’s just it’s like one repeated thing after another.

S1: Well, your governor, Ron DeSantis, he’s relatively new. He’s been on the job less than a year. He’s a Republican. He’s gotten some heat because there’ve been pictures of him, you know, only wearing one glove or wearing his mask wrong. I’m wondering, you’ve covered a lot of governors in Florida. Can you kind of fit him in to how he compares to his predecessors?

S2: You know, we’ve had a lot of the crises that Florida’s encountered, pretty much have been of natural disasters and hurricanes and oil spills and things like that. And I have to say that this governor has this unique relationship with the White House. And it’s an interesting because well, first of all, Governor Ron DeSantis probably won the primary because Donald Trump endorsed him. And so I think he can credit a lot of his success to this president.

S1: I still remember the ad he did where it was wonderful. Oh, he is building a wall with him.

S2: Yeah. Teaching his little daughter how to build a wall with blocks. So he has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t want to ever counter this president. And so he’s been careful to never get ahead of the president or the or the CDC. So while other states have been much more aggressive earlier because they had populations that were vulnerable or evidence that there were hot spots in there in their towns, they did the stay home orders earlier. They imposed much more restrictions. They were much more aggressive about testing. Governor to scientists chose not to because he didn’t want to show that he was more aggressive than than the administration was and the CDC. So he held back. And I think in many ways that is going to be the the legacy that he’s left here. And we’ll know whether or not he he’s made a big mistake because he took that approach or not.

S1: It’s funny, even even you have written like FLORIDO wasn’t made for induced isolation. And I feel like you could see that this weekend when they opened up the beaches again and you could see people just right going for it like getting back out there, which is understandable in a state as beautiful as yours. It just seems like there’s a lot of conflicting information out there at the moment. Like you. Yeah, on the same weekend, we get all this data about how frankly dangerous the long term care facilities seem to be at this point. We have people going back to the beach. Yeah. Yeah. I wonder what you make of that.

S2: Yeah, it is. You know, everybody’s trying to have it both ways. You know, it’s just really hard. Unlike other states where it’s still cold in some places where, you know, I have friends in Boston, they just had a little dusting of snow. I mean, it’s it’s crazy. But Florida is been this is the most beautiful time of the year. The weather is perfect. It’s not too crazy hot. It’s just stunning. And so it’s so hard to be stuck inside. And the beaches are calling you. So, of course, I think the the Jacksonville mayor had a good idea to let people just walk on the beach, but it didn’t work out that way. People just throw what happened. Everyone just everybody showed up. And so you can’t keep your social distance if you’re if you’re with 300 other people in the same spot. I think what we are missing, you know, is that more people need to be informed about what the stakes are and what the risks are. And that’s where, you know, we come in and as journalists, we just let’s just inform people and lay it all out there. And and hopefully people will understand that you’re just going to prolong our agony if you get out too early. There’s been a lot of attention to the fact that we’re we’re collecting enough masks and we’re collecting making sure our hospitals have room. And we’re we’re building this infrastructure to catch you if you get sick. But there is almost no messaging on what you need to do to prevent yourself from getting sick. So we’ve got a big safety net will catch you if you fall, but there is almost no effort and messaging being done to keep people from falling.

S1: What do you mean when you say that? Because, like I’m in New York, so I listen to the radio and, you know, every hour there’s some kind of announcement from the Department of Health like New Yorkers need to keep their distance, stay home, stay safe. Are you hearing that in Florida?

S2: No. In fact, they’re only this week did the governor launch a messaging app that gives people information. And it’s it’s not one where if you can you can text a number and then get information in return. But you have to opt in. But you’ve got to opt in. And I think it’s you know, we’ll see. But I think it’s designed to give people information about how the state is going to open up. I don’t think it’s designed to keep people from getting sick. It’s it’s just been a very different approach to the messaging.

S1: Ellen Costs, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much. Mary Ellen Costs is the Capitol bureau chief for the Miami Herald. And that is the show. What next is pretty spy Mary Wilson. Daniel Hewitt, Mara Silvers and Jason De Leon. We’ve always got help from Alison Benedicte.

S4: And now Alicia McMurry. Welcome, Alicia. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.