Virus Outbreak Florida

The Atria Willow Wood assisted living facility is pictured in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 

(The Center Square) – During Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force meetings in April, businesses sought assurances that if they reopen in accordance with state and federal guidelines, they would not be sued if patrons and workers contracted COVID-19.

Among those seeking “blanket immunity” include operators of 3,800 Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities that house about 150,000 elderly residents and long-term care patients.

Operators said it would be unfair to be held legally liable when they’ve been hamstrung by shortages of testing and personal protective equipment amid constantly changing state and federal guidance.

The Florida Health Care Association (FHCA), which represents 691 nursing homes that house 71,000 residents statewide, has requested “sovereign immunity” for facilities and workers.

“We believe it is imperative that health care facilities and health care professionals are protected from liability that may result from treating individuals with COVID-19 under the conditions associated with this public health emergency,” FHCA Executive Director Emmett Reed wrote in an April 9 letter to DeSantis.

The Florida Life Care Residents Association (FLCRA), which represents 14,000 nursing home and assisted living facility residents, in a Monday letter to DeSantis said granting “blanket immunity” to nursing homes and assisted living facilities “would not be a prudent decision.”

“No changes to current ‘cause of action’ provisions should be adopted until there is adequate time for policymakers to assess the full extent of information related to COVID-19’s impact on Florida’s long-term care providers and the residents they serve,” FLCRA President Diane Dalsimer wrote.

Orlando-based law firm Morgan & Morgan announced Thursday it will challenge any attempt to grant “blanket immunity” to nursing homes and stated its intent to sue two nursing homes over alleged mishandling of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Attorneys Matt Morgan and Alexander Clem said their firm has been retained by families whose relatives died at Opis Coquina Center in Ormond Beach and Suwannee Health & Rehabilitation Center in Live Oak.

“These family members are just in the last seven to 10 days learning about what happened to mom and dad; that (their death) was due to COVID-19,” Clem said in a virtual news conference. “The folks that allowed this to happen knowingly – they deserve to be held accountable.”

Morgan accused the two facilities of gross negligence in allegedly ignoring early cases and not isolating patients and workers.

The Florida Department of Health (DOH), which charts COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, reported 30 COVID-19-positive residents and four staff members Friday at Suwannee Health & Rehabilitation Center, where another 35 residents are listed as “transferred,” meaning they’re either hospitalized or now in a facility equipped to handle coronavirus patients.

DOH does not list Opis Coquina among nursing homes and assisted living facilities reporting active cases, meaning it is telling DOH it no longer has positive residents or staff.

DOH has reported 16 residents have died from COVID-19 at Opis Coquina and 18 at Suwannee Health & Rehabilitation Center.

As of Wednesday, 482 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have reported 1,604 COVID-19-positive residents and 1,804 positive staff members. The 1,604 positive residents represents 1.1 percent of 147,144 nursing home and assisted living facility residents statewide.

The 815 deaths among nursing home and assisted living facility residents reported Thursday, however, accounts for 43 percent of the state’s 1,875 COVID-19 deaths.

Broward County attorney Lee Friedland also has filed notice of intent to sue the Atria Willow Wood assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale on behalf of family members over the March 17 death of a resident.

Morgan said the suit will challenge granting “blanket immunity” for nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“They have lobbyists, they have special interest groups (that) get to our politicians, and our politicians then change the law to give them immunity or greatly reduce their liability,” Morgan said. “There is very little accountability for them.”