TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- As a legislative debate builds about shielding nursing homes and other health-care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, new numbers show that Florida has exceeded 10,000 deaths of long-term care facility residents and staff members from COVID-19.
With an additional 59 deaths reported Friday, total long-term care deaths reached 10,034 --- with the vast majority involving residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
State leaders have worried since the early days of the pandemic about the threat of COVID-19 to long-term care residents, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease because of advanced ages and underlying health conditions.
As of Friday, long-term care facilities were linked to about 35 percent of the 28,565 deaths of Floridians from COVID-19, according to a report released by the state Department of Health. In all, 28 counties have had more than 100 long-term care deaths, with Palm Beach County topping the list with 974 deaths and Miami-Dade County next with 964.
More broadly, the respiratory disease has had a disproportionate impact on seniors.
Since the pandemic started, about 15 percent of the reported COVID-19 cases in the state have involved people ages 65 and older, the Department of Health report shows. But about 83 percent of the deaths have involved people in that age group --- a rate that has remained consistent for months.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly pointed to the disease's danger to seniors by prioritizing them for COVID-19 vaccinations. Through Wednesday, about 74 percent of the people in Florida who had received at least one dose of vaccine were 65 or older.
But amid the vaccination efforts, a debate has started in the Legislature about bills that would provide legal protections to health-care providers facing potential lawsuits related to COVID-19.
While the bills would apply to hospitals, physicians and other types of providers, nursing homes likely will be a key issue. The Florida Health Care Association, the largest nursing-home group in the state, has been calling for legal protections since early in the pandemic.
"Our health care heroes should be celebrated for the life-saving decisions they continue to make to protect our loved ones, not worried about the threat of lawsuits for delivering care during a crisis they did not create," association Executive Director Emmett Reed said in a prepared statement this month after the Senate released its version of the bill (SB 74).
But AARP Florida has blasted the possibility of providing immunity to long-term care facilities.
"Let's be clear: Stripping away the rights of older Floridians and their families is careless and irresponsible," AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson said in a statement this week. "Long-term care facilities must be accountable when their wrongdoing threatens the health --- and lives --- of residents and staff. Especially when isolated residents are vulnerable and often unable to advocate for themselves."
The Senate bill cleared its first hurdle Wednesday, getting approval from the Judiciary Committee in a 6-4 vote. The House Health & Human Services Committee will consider the House version (PCB HHS 21-01) next week.
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