MIAMI — Florida's fits and starts toward post-Irma recovery have shifted to urgent efforts to protect its vulnerable elderly residents after a string of nursing home deaths.
Several nursing homes have been evacuated because of a lack of power or air conditioning, while utility workers raced help dozens of others still lacking electricity as of Thursday. Homebound seniors found help from charities, churches and authorities.
Meanwhile, detectives were combing through the Hollywood facility where eight elderly residents died amid sweltering heat.
On Thursday, 57 residents were moved from a suburban Fort Lauderdale assisted-living facility without power to two nearby centers where electricity was just restored. Owner Ralph Marrinson said all five of his Florida facilities lost power after Irma. Workers scrambled to keep patients cool with emergency stocks of ice and Popsicles.
“FPL has got to have a better plan for power,” he said, referring to the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light. “We're supposed to be on a priority list, and it doesn't come and it doesn't come and, frankly, it's very scary.”
Statewide, 64 nursing homes were still waiting for full power Thursday, according to the Florida Health Care Association. The separate Florida Assisted Living Association said many of its South Florida members lacked electricity. The group was working on a precise count.
Older people can be more susceptible to heat because their bodies do not adjust to temperatures as well as young people. They don't sweat as much, they are more likely to have medical conditions that change how the body responds to heat, and they are more likely to take medication that affects body temperature.
Most people who die from high body temperature, known as hyperthermia, are over 50, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Homebound seniors were also a concern. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation encouraged people to evacuate before the storm if they could, but now the group has shifted its focus to checking on them and bringing supplies to their homes, said CEO Jacob Solomon.
“At this point we're better off taking care of them where they are. They didn't leave then. They're not going to leave now. What are you going to do? You go, you check on them, you make sure they have water and food and that's it,” he said. “You're not going to convince a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor to do something that she doesn't want to do.”
Though the number of outages has dropped, some 2.3 million homes and businesses were without power Thursday afternoon across the state. Utility officials warned it could take a week or more for all areas to be back up and running.
Including the nursing home deaths, at least 26 people in Florida have died under Irma-related circumstances, and six more in South Carolina and Georgia, many of them well after the storm passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38.
On Thursday, detectives were at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after receiving a search warrant to investigate the eight patients’ deaths, which police believed were heat-related.
The ex-husband of 71-year-old victim Gail Nova said her devastated family believes the facility should lose its license.
“Someone's got to answer for this. Someone let the ball drop very, very far,” Kenneth Nova said by phone from his home in Winter Haven. “Whoever was in charge, whoever was responsible, needs to be called onto the carpet for it.”
The center said the hurricane knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. Broward County said the home alerted officials about the situation Tuesday, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help.
But by early Wednesday, the center had placed three calls to report patients in distress, prompting firefighters to search the facility. They found three people dead and evacuated 145 people to hospitals, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said. By that afternoon, five more had died.
The facility's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement that it was cooperating fully with authorities.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday night that he directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to terminate the center as a provider for Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income individuals and families.
“It is clear that this facility cannot be responsible for Florida's vulnerable patients, and therefore the State will stop them from providing care,” Scott said in a news release.
State records revealed a variety of problems at the center. The center showed deficiencies in maintaining fire and safety standards pertaining to exits and storage areas, as well as more serious problems with its generator maintenance and testing, according to February 2016 reports by Florida Agency for Health Care Administration inspectors. Another 2016 report found problems with respecting patient dignity and maintaining housekeeping services.
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