A total of 68 residents and 22 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Highlands Lake Center. There are currently 54 residents hospitalized. The 14th fatality for a resident is confirmed by daughter.
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LAKELAND — On Saturday, 85-year-old Mercedes Quintero became the 14th resident from the Highlands Lake Center nursing home to have died of COVID-19.
“She was the first to show me love and the last to show me unconditional love,“ her daughter, Ana Quintero Eason, wrote in a Facebook tribute. ”I feel no closure, as I cannot see her and say goodbye. This is seriously the hardest part.”
Ambulances continued to take COVID-19 patients out of Highlands Lake Center in the last week, where at least 13 of the 17 confirmed deaths originating from a county long-term care facility have been reported, according to data from the Polk County Medical Examiner's Office. The Quintero family announced what is expected to be reported as the 14th fatality related to the novel coronavirus.
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The Florida Department of Health, which calculates the deaths differently from state medical examiners, reports that, as of Thursday, 62 Highlands Lake residents have tested positive for COVID-19, with 54 transferred to a medical facility. In addition, 22 staff members have also tested positive.
FDOH reported Saturday that 26 people from Polk County have died of COVID-19, with 15 of those being nursing home residents. The individual long-term care facilities involving those residents are not identified by state health officials.
Opis, the parent company of Highlands Lake Center, states on its website that, between April 1 and April 29, 139 residents have been tested for the deadly virus, with 68 tests coming back positive — or basically half of the residents. In addition, 164 employees have been tested, with 15 reported as confirmed cases. That information is listed on a spreadsheet, created within the last two weeks, and found at opismr.com.
For family members, one of their main complaints is the lack of communication by Highlands Lake officials. And for them, this crisis is beyond numbers and data — it is their mother or father who has died or is struggling and suffering.
According to state health officials, eight COVID-positive patients remain at the facility, although several family members say they have not been informed of that.
Mary Ann DeLoach, whose mother tested negative April 29, wants to know why those patients have not been transferred out.
“When I received the call Wednesday afternoon that my 103-year-old mama was negative, much to my relief, I asked why there were still positive cases at HLC,” she wrote in a text. “The social worker didn't know but said she'd refer my question to my contact in administration to call me. I haven't received that call yet.”
Following a story by The Ledger on April 15 about issues at the nursing home, several family members were angered that they hadn't been called by Highlands Lake.
“My mother-in-law is there,“ Robin Alberts Miller wrote on the home's Facebook page. ”Shouldn't the family be made aware of this before newspapers and Facebook posts?“
A week before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a statewide safer-at-home executive order on April 1, Highlands Lake residents were enjoying “hallway bingo,” playing the game in wheelchairs parked outside their room doors and spaced four to six feet apart from one another. And the facility had an on-site job fair March 3 — two days after Florida saw the first two cases of the virus, one in Hillsborough County and another in Jacksonville.
A statement on the Opis website says the company is making every effort to communicate and be transparent.
“Our customers, their family members, and our team members rightfully expect a culture of transparency, one where they have the confidence they deserve that our centers are being operated as safely as possible in these unprecedented times,” the statement, posted underneath the spreadsheet of those tested, reads.
“Throughout this crisis we have extended significant efforts to communicate regularly with all of the valued members of our greater Opis community on important information regarding the virus … We hope this gives those in our community the extra security to know we are leading through this challenge as we always have — mission-oriented and with our hearts and minds focused on what matters most to those who, now more than ever, should matter most to all of us.”
But Tara Zimmerman, Opis associate general counsel, did not respond to two emails or a phone call on Thursday and Friday with questions, including:
• Do you know how all of this started in Highlands Lake? Was it a family member visiting a resident? Was it an employee?
• Do you know how it spread?
• It is my understanding that several positive residents are still being housed at the facility. Is that correct?
• If so, why haven't they been sent to the hospital? Is that your decision or the hospital's?
• Are employees who are treating COVID patients treating ONLY those patients, including nurses, CNAs, food staff, therapists, etc.?
• Are employees working in one wing with non-COVID patients staying only in that wing?
• Has the Florida National Guard been to the home to assess the situation and test patients yet?
A notice on the Opis website states that team members are being kept safe by:
• Receiving extra training.
• Monitoring and screening for symptoms of respiratory infection at the beginning of each shift they work, and taking their temperatures.
• Continuing routine cleaning and disinfection procedures, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Placing customers with respiratory symptoms in isolation and “cared for as much as possible by the same team members to reduce exposure to customers without respiratory symptoms.”
On April 20, Everton Spencer, Administrator of Opis Highlands Lake, issued a public statement, announcing that any positive patients or patients suspected of having the virus would be moved to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center. That was when nearly a dozen patients were taken to the hospital.
“Our hearts go out to these customers and their families as well as everyone affected by this pandemic,” Spencer stated. “It is reassuring to know that these customers are receiving the high level of care that Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center can provide during this pandemic. No other statements will be issued at this time.”
This is not the only Opis long-term care facility in Florida with an issue. The Opis website shows that Coquina Center in Volusia County has 36 residents with positive test results and a dozen staff members.
A person connected to Highlands Lake said the Florida Department of Health has been onsite, monitoring all activities, but added that some staff are now using cut-up garbage bags for protective equipment.
Ana Quintero Eason said she demanded two weeks ago that Highlands Lake test her mother because Mercedes Quintero had a cough. She said the home had originally refused to test her because she didn't have a fever.
The test came back positive and Quintero was taken to LRHMC. A week ago, her daughter said Quintero had been moved to palliative care and hospice had been called in as she transitioned to the end of her life. The family opted not to put Quintero on a feeding tube after she stopped eating because that was her wish.
Eason said her mother's dementia had escalated, possibly from the virus or the confusion of being moved several times in the span of a few weeks, and not being able to be with family.
Eason said a sympathetic hospital worker had let the family do FaceTime with her and she seemed to perk up a little bit during the calls.
She described her mother on Saturday as a woman who loved and was concerned about everyone, whose face brightened whenever she was with her large family. For Quintero, her siblings, children, grandchildren and in-laws were her priority.
“We loved to watch her fill her plate with sweets ... another love of hers,” Eason said. “It was humorous and so cute. Just like her smiling face.”
Eason described her frustration and grief in a Facebook post.
“Let me explain how our family has to deal with this. We have not seen my mother in over a month now,” Eason wrote, granting The Ledger permission to quote her. “We are finalizing her wishes and cannot be there to console her or each other right now … My mom is 85 and I knew this (was) coming one day. However, I didn't expect the unimaginable — I am unable to be by her side. I can't (tell) her that she was a great mother, grandmother, and friend.”
She added that they can't make funeral plans as anyone would do in normal times.
“This virus has made that impossible. We will have to drive through the funeral home and sign papers. We can't have a service because of the virus,” she said. “I pray for anyone that has to go through something like this. I pray for those who are passing alone with no one by their side. I pray for those who are stupid enough to only think of themselves and not take this virus seriously. It is REAL, it SUCKS.”
Eason's anger showed when asked if there were anything else she wanted to say.
“All of this could have been prevented if they had just tested everyone,” Eason said. “As a result, I (couldn't) sit by my mom's side during her last few days to support and love her like she has done to me and my family all of our lives.”
Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.