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Florida Reopens Nursing Homes To Visitors

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It's been nearly six months since Florida residents have been allowed inside nursing homes and assisted living facilities to visit their loved ones. That's true in most states as public health officials have worked to protect those most at risk from the coronavirus. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, Florida has now lifted its ban while adding some restrictions.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The numbers are striking. More than 40% of the nearly 12,000 people who've died in Florida from the coronavirus were residents of long-term care facilities. Even so, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says he had a pit in his stomach when he signed an emergency order in mid-March stopping nursing home visits. This week, as he accepted recommendations from a task force allowing families once again to visit their loved ones, he became a little emotional.

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RON DESANTIS: They're not demanding a medical miracle. They're not having unrealistic expectations. They just would like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody, so...

ALLEN: More than anyone else, Mary Daniel is the one responsible for reopening nursing homes for visitors. Daniel gained national attention after she took a job as a dishwasher at her husband's memory care facility in order to be allowed to see him. She became an advocate for families with relatives in nursing homes. And the governor asked her to serve on the task force. After nearly six months, she and thousands of other families are thrilled they'll now be able to visit their loved ones.

MARY DANIEL: That first hug and that first conversation and rubbing their back and holding their hand will take away the pain that we've all been suffering for these last 175 days?

ALLEN: Under the rules, residents in long-term care facilities without any new COVID-19 infections in the last two weeks will be allowed to have a limited number of visitors wearing face coverings and socially distancing. For now, no hugs will be allowed. But Daniel knows how vital hugs and personal contact can be. One day, she says as she was leaving her dishwasher job, she came upon a very frail elderly woman.

DANIEL: I said, come back in here. Let's get to your room. And she turned around, looked at me and said, will you give me a hug? And I almost didn't do it. I thought for a second, oh, I might get in trouble. I had a mask on. And I did, I gave her a hug. And I said earlier it may be one of the best hugs that I've ever given. I mean, this is a real sign that people need touch.

ALLEN: At Daniel's insistence, Florida is now allowing some family members to be designated essential care providers. As such, they'll be allowed to hug and provide personal care to their loved ones, wearing PPE and being screened before each visit. Each of Florida's 3,700 long-term care facilities now is to figure out how to work with the new rules. Jay Solomon is the CEO of Aviva, a facility with 250 residents in Sarasota.

JAY SOLOMON: We do have concerns about, you know, how fast we can implement those recommendations.

ALLEN: Solomon says all visitors will have to sign a training manual saying that they know how to properly wear PPE and socially distance. Kristin Knapp is with the Florida Health Care Association, a group that represents 550 nursing homes here. She says, for those designated as essential caregivers, the training will be more extensive.

KRISTEN KNAPP: You know, again, if they're doing these - you know, lifting an individual in and out of a wheelchair, you want to make sure that's done safely. And you want to make sure that they're trained if they have questions that they're doing things that will not put the resident at risk.

ALLEN: Activist Mary Daniel expects there will be more cases of coronavirus in nursing homes as a result of this policy, but she says these residents need to be with their families to be able to hold their hands at the end of their lives. She says that's a precious gift, one they're grateful to have back. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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