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Disability Providers Push State For COVID-19 Tests

Gov. Ron DeSantis says his administration has made a top priority of protecting frail and elderly people in long-term care facilities from COVID-19, including requiring regular testing of staff members and providing test kits to the facilities.

But the administration's policies have not included providing test kits to group homes and facilities for people with developmental disabilities, advocates for people with disabilities say.

“I think it’s just an oversight, and it’s been brought to the right people’s attention, and we are working with them to bring about some resolution,” said Jim DeBeaugrine, interim chief executive officer of The Arc of Florida. “We are in active communications, and I am working on a resolution.”

Part of that resolution, DeBeaugrine said, includes notifying the 67 county health departments under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Health of the need to work with the group homes and what are known as intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

“There needs to be a consistent message to these county health departments that this is a vulnerable long-term care population, just like the ALFs (assisted living facilities) and nursing homes,” DeBeaugrine said.  He added that assistance from county health departments varies widely and that “we deserve the same level of attention, because the risks are equal, if not greater.”

To hold down the spread of COVID-19, the Agency for Health Care Administration last month issued a pair of emergency rules that require nursing homes and ALFs to test staff members for COVID-19 twice a month. The mandate kicks in July 7. The state will send a month’s supply of testing kits to the facilities in the coming days.

But the emergency rules, which ban nursing homes and ALFs from allowing staff members --- paid or volunteer --- to enter the buildings if they aren't tested, did not apply to intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities or the 1,703 community group homes licensed in the state. 

The Agency for Health Care Administration did not answer questions about why those facilities were excluded from the emergency rules.

But agency spokesman Patrick Manderfield said county health departments have “tested health care facilities upon request, including (intermediate care facilities), and will continue to do so upon request. “

Manderfield referred all other questions about testing to the Florida Department of Health, which did not immediately respond to The News Service of Florida’s questions.

Suzanne Sewell, president and CEO of Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, Inc., which represents intermediate care facilities, said there is no testing mandate in place for the facilities but that her members are being encouraged to test all staff.

But when the facilities reach out to local health departments for assistance, Sewell said, they are often told to take the residents to public testing sites, “which is difficult to do.”

“We have asked that they reverse that. If it requires an emergency order (for nursing homes and ALFs), then we think ICFs (intermediate care facilities) need an emergency order,” Sewell said.

In the meantime, Sewell said, many of her member facilities are testing staff member and residents and absorbing the increased costs.

Numbers of people with developmental disabilities who have tested positive for COVID-19 are posted on two state websites.

The Department of Health tracks the number of people who have tested positive in intermediate care facilities, while the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities tracks the numbers for people living in group homes or family homes, as well as people who reside in state-operated facilities.

As of Tuesday, 93 intermediate-care facility residents were infected with COVID-19, according to the Department of Health data. Also, 131 staff members of private intermediate care facilities are positive for COVID-19.

Another 159 people living in group homes, their own homes or in family homes have been infected with COVID 19, according to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Also, 160 staff members who work at those homes are currently infected, and one staff member has died.

Florida Developmental Disabilities Council Executive Director Valerie Breen worries that inequities in the state’s COVID-19 policies goes beyond testing. Breen said she is concerned that the group homes and intermediate care facilities aren’t being given personal protection equipment.

“Provision of personal protective equipment for individuals with (intellectual and developmental disabilities), their families and the staff that serve them should be funded, provided and available in the same manner as our hospital and long-term care facilities.” Breen said. “No individual, family, group home or intermediate care facility should have to fund the critical equipment to sustain their safety during this pandemic.”

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