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FL will use National Guard to help test for coronavirus at nursing homes

Florida National Guard Spc. John Larson, with the Florida Medical Detachment, retrieves a sample from a patient at a COVID-19 Community Based Testing Site, March 19, 2020. (Sgt. Michael Baltz/U.S. Army)

As Clay County and Suwannee County deal with escalating COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities, Gov. Ron DeSantis is deploying the Florida National Guard to help with testing at facilities around the state to identify residents and staff who are infected before they start showing symptoms.

Florida has a total of 1,135 COVID-19 cases among residents and staff of long-term care facilities, according to state Department of Health figures released Tuesday morning. That is a quantum jump from 81 cases in such facilities on April 1.

DeSantis said Monday that even though the state sharply restricted visitation by family and friends last month at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, staff members who are infected but not showing symptoms can spread the deadly virus when they go to work.

DeSantis said the National Guard will help the state create teams that do more testing of residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

“It’s critical to identify people who test positive as early as possible, and this will help us do that,” he said.

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He said the National Guard will begin its mission in counties that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, which is that southeast part of the state.

Miami-Dade County has had 212 cases linked to long-term care facilities, Broward County has the second-highest amount at 104 cases, and Palm Beach County is at 91 cases, according to figures released Tuesday morning.

Northeast Florida has not suffered as much from the spread of COVID-19 in the general population, but some counties have faced outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

Suwannee County has had 65 cases, which is the fourth-highest number in the state.

DeSantis said last week the state sent a “strike team” to a Suwannee County nursing home and was investigating how the spread of infections in that facility originated from an infected staff member.

A Live Oak City Council member has said the cases are at Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center, which is licensed by the state for 180 beds.

DeSantis said Monday that since last month, the state has sent strike teams to 93 long-term care facilities across Florida.The state has not released the names of those facilities, so it’s not possible to say how many are in specific counties.

Clay County is tied for fifth in the state with 60 cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff. The Florida Department of Health report issued Tuesday morning showed the county had recorded three more cases since Monday. Clay County only had two cases on April 1 at long-term care facilities.

Duval County has had 49 cases in such facilities. In the early days of the state tracking, Duval County had 14 cases on March 23, which was the most in the state at that time.

In March, the city of Jacksonville joined forces with the state Department of Health to give tests to all residents and staff at the Camellia at Deerwood senior living community, where three residents died after contracting COVID-19.

Macclenny Nursing & Rehab Center expanded testing to all residents and staff two weeks ago after seeing a spike in cases that originated from a resident who was transferred from a hospital. Baker County has 12 cases at long-term care facilities.

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© 2020 The Florida Times-Union