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COVID separated families from loved ones in care facilities. Lawmakers don't want it to happen again

Mary Daniel has short grey hair and wears a bright red shirt. She's speaking behind a microphone in a committee room and holding a book titled "Saving Them to Death."
The Florida Channel
Mary Daniel and others from the advocacy group Caregivers for Compromise contributed stories to the book Saving Them to Death to share their prespectives about trying to access to their loved ones who were living in care facilities at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the coronavirus pandemic began back in early 2020, Mary Daniel went from visiting her husband nearly every day to being barred from seeing him.

“On March the 11th I went to see him as I do every single night and on the 12th they called me and said, 'you can’t come back,'” Daniel told a panel of House lawmakers. “I panicked. I promised him the day that they told us he had Alzheimer’s that I wouldn’t leave his side, that I would be with him every single day and all the sudden I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”

Daniel’s husband Steve, who is 68 years old, has lived in a Jacksonville memory care center for the past 2-and-a-half years. Daniel said she tried to find ways to stay connected with her husband while the facility closed its doors to visitors because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, but it was difficult for her husband to understand.

“We did some visits at the window. He cried the entire time—twice. I decided that wasn’t going to work. We would talk on the ipad. Unfortunately, he’s unable to speak,” she said. “He has never known what COVID is. He still doesn’t know what COVID is. He just doesn’t have the cognitive ability.”

“What I didn’t understand is why was I able to touch my husband as a dishwasher, but I was unable to touch him as his wife. I just didn’t understand that."
Mary Daniel

Finally, someone from the memory care center’s corporate office offered Daniel a job as a dishwasher. She took it immediately. It meant she could enter the building. She said she would have done whatever it took to be able to hold her husband’s hand.

“What I didn’t understand is why was I able to touch my husband as a dishwasher, but I was unable to touch him as his wife. I just didn’t understand that,” Daniel said.

Daniel waited 114 days before being able to visit her husband in person. For other families the wait was longer. The experience pushed her to form an advocacy group called Caregivers for Compromise. Part of the group’s work has been supporting a bill by Rep. Jason Shoaf (R-Port St. Joe). Under the measure, a patient can designate a caregiver or family member who must be allowed to visit for a minimum of two hours daily. Shoaf said during the pandemic the coronavirus proved it can be deadly, but he said loneliness also poses a real threat.

“When you have family members who are locked out and looking at their loved ones die day-by-day out the window, it can bring a depression on like you’ve never seen. Those things are just as deadly,” he said.

Shoaf’s measure also requires care facilities, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices, intermediate care facilities for people who are developmentally disabled and hospitals, to create visitation policies that address concerns such as infectious disease prevention. In addition, it creates a list of circumstances under which visitors must be allowed.

“Having my mom in a facility post COVID has been difficult in and of itself but is someone were to tell me and my sisters that we could not come in, not one of us, I can’t even imagine what we would do."
Rep. Kelly Skidmore (D-Boca Raton)

Shoaf’s bill is moving forward with bipartisan support. In a recent committee meeting several Democrats spoke about the issue from a personal perspective. Rep. Kelly Skidmore (D-Boca Raton) said she and her sisters moved her mother into a care facility recently.

“Having my mom in a facility post COVID has been difficult in and of itself but if someone were to tell me and my sisters that we could not come in, not one of us, I can’t even imagine what we would do,” Skidmore said.

Skidmore said she thinks there’s room for improvement in the bill but appreciates what’s there. Some other Democrats raised concerns saying the measure doesn’t give facilities enough flexibility or doesn’t have enough protections in place.

"While I agree that visitations should not be restricted and that it actually contributes to a person's quality of life, I also don't feel this is the way we should do it due to the masses of people in many of our nursing homes who need the additional safety," said Rep. Kamia Brown (D-Ocoee).

Brown said she doesn't want to tie the hands of care facilities in the future.