TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration appears poised to address rising criticism over its handling of COVID-19 in group homes that take care of residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The deadly respiratory disease has shown itself to be efficient at moving rapidly through prisons, jails, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. But it also can be a problem for the places where people with disabilities live.
One of the ongoing complaints is a lack of testing in group homes. In response, the DeSantis administration said this week it is “evaluating options” to expand testing for staff members and residents at the facilities.
The administration also announced that the state will start providing the names of group homes where residents and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. The first weekly report will be Friday, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities said.
The agency sent a statement Wednesday night to The News Service of Florida noting the changes. If implemented, the policies — particularly access to free tests for group homes — would be a reversal for the DeSantis administration, which has prided itself on how it has taken steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“The Agency for Persons with Disabilities is committed to the highest standards of care for our customers,” agency Director Barbara Palmer said in the statement. Additionally, Palmer said she was working closely with state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and other officials in the DeSantis administration “to ensure the needs of Floridians with developmental disabilities remain a priority in all aspects of care.”
“I am proud to work to protect individuals with developmental disabilities from COVID-19 in every way possible,” Palmer said.
The agency already tracks COVID-19 cases at more than 2,000 licensed group homes that it licenses. While the DeSantis administration started making available the details of testing information at nursing homes and ALFs, it has not disclosed that data for group homes.
The potential changes highlight how Florida officials have handled the coronavirus outbreak differently between facilities that serve seniors and people with disabilities. Group homes were not included in recently passed emergency rules that require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to test staff members every two weeks. The state is providing free tests to nursing homes and ALFs to carry out the new policy.
Kari Bates, executive director of The Arc of Putnam County, sees first-hand the differences in the state’s testing policies. That’s because Bates offers her clients access to ALFs and group homes.
She recalled first noticing a difference in the testing policies early in the COVID-19 pandemic. She said local emergency operations officials sent face masks for her ALF clients and staff members but that nothing was sent for her group home staff and clients. Additionally, when the Florida National Guard initially contacted her about testing ALF staff members and residents for COVID-19, there was no mention of testing people at the group homes.
“It logically didn’t make sense to me. While I understand how it’s happening when you look at the clientele and the risk factors, the people in the APD (Agency for Persons with Disabilities) homes are in congregate settings. They are typically an older age. They have all sorts of co-existing conditions, and they are just as much at risk as an ALF resident,” Bates said.
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said Florida isn’t the only state with COVID-19 policies that have left behind people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We’ve allowed everybody, including health departments, to pretend this is not a serious problem for this population because we are not identifying it,” he said. “This population just falls off the table and is considered not important enough or a priority enough to deal with, even though they are experiencing this.”
In Florida, group homes are an integral part of the service-delivery system for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Organizations like Decker’s network hold out community-based facilities as an alternative to institutional care.
But Decker worries that uneven COVID-19 policies may make the community environments less safe.
“It makes me nervous. Am I putting my clients in a worse situation? We think the community is better for them to have real integrated lives,” Decker said. “We are just putting them in more jeopardy.”
The News Service reported last week that The Arc of Florida wanted the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to advise county health departments on the need to test people at group homes. And in its statement, the agency said county health departments are testing at group homes “whenever there is or was an indication of possible exposure to COVID-19.”
Providers, though, say they don’t want testing after the fact.
Arc Jacksonville Executive Director Jim Whittaker said he tried for months to get the Duval County Health Department to test residents and staff members at his five facilities but that he was repeatedly denied. All that changed last week after one of his residents tested positive for COVID-19. Days later, Whittaker said, a staff member at the home also tested positive.
“For me, it was all preventative,” Whittaker said. “But we were told group homes were not a priority.”
Immediate attempts to contact the Duval County Health Department for comment were unsuccessful.
Arc of Alachua County Executive Director Mark Swain has been able to get preventive testing for his group home clients and staff.
“But it took a lot to get them (health officials) to understand that because they weren’t receiving the correct information from the top down,” he said.
Alachua County Health Department Administrator Paul Myers, though, said he didn’t need to be sold on the idea.
“We embraced the testing of that population and the residents and continue to do so to this day,” Myers said, adding that testing is conducted every two weeks. “Now it’s just on cruise control.”
Myers defended the state’s decision to make testing at nursing homes and assisted living facilities the top priority.
“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. And those who are in those ALFs and nursing homes are my top priority in Alachua County,” he said. “My No. 1 priority continues to be the nursing homes and the ALF where we have a lot of danger for that population.”
Decker said Myers’ remark underscored the problem.
“You are a public health person,” Decker said. “Why do we have to explain to you that people with these particular disabilities are very, very vulnerable and need the same kind of care?”