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Authorities seek answers after Florida nursing home deaths

Community Admin 6 Sep 14
Nursing home deaths after Irma power outage
  • "I am going to aggressively demand answers," Florida Governor says
  • Medical examiner still investigating whether deaths are considered heat-related

(CNN)Since Sunday, Jeffrey Nova had been calling the Hollywood, Florida nursing home where his mom lived, but he couldn't get anyone to answer the phone.

Still, that didn't strike him as unusual, he said -- communicating with the staff had always been like "pulling teeth."

It didn't dawn on him that something could be terribly wrong.

On Wednesday, he learned that his mother, Gail Nova, was one of eight residents who died at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after Hurricane Irma knocked out power in the area, leaving the staff scrambling to keep residents hydrated and cool with fans and portable air conditioner units.

"I'm not quite clear on how this happened," said Nova, who said he learned of his mother's death from a reporter who got his name and contact info from a nursing home employee.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered an emergency moratorium Wednesday to prevent the facility from admitting new patients as authorities investigate the residents' deaths.

"I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place," he said in a statement. "If they find that this facility was not meeting the state's high standards of care, they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

Hollywood Police, Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families have all launched investigations.

What happened?

The center lost power sometime after the storm and was without its air conditioning system for about three days.

When Ellie Pina visited her mother after the storm, she said she felt the air conditioner was not working properly.

"I asked if they had electricity and they told me they were working on generators," she said. "It was very hot."

As the days passed, she saw that residents were kept outside their rooms in the hallways.

Ellie Pina

"They had portable air conditioner units and fans," Pina said after her mother was taken to the hospital on Wednesday. "They were trying to get them all together so they could be able to breathe."

The first call for help came on Wednesday at about 3 a.m., for a patient in cardiac arrest. About an hour later, crews grew concerned when they received a second call for a resident with breathing problems. When the third call came in, the fire department sent over more crews, the City of Hollywood said in a statement.

But by the time the facility was completely evacuated on Wednesday morning, one resident had been taken to a funeral home, three others were found dead on the second floor of the facility and several others were in distress, officials said.

Four more died in hospitals after paramedics and emergency medical staff helped evacuate the sweltering facility.

The causes of death are yet to be determined.

Questions arise

The Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Florida on Wednesday

The deaths have prompted authorities to question how the conditions at the nursing home lasted for so long.

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said the center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. State officials said they were in contact with the nursing home over the past three days and advised them to call 911 if they believed that the health or safety of patients was at risk.

"We are devastated by these losses," Carballo said. "We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

It's unclear when the facility first reached out to first responders.

In a statement, Richard Beltran, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, said: "What we know now is that a portion of the facility did, in fact, have power, that there was a hospital across the parking lot from this facility and that the nursing home was required to have a permanently installed operational generator."

The nursing home has a history of safety violations and citations, including two for not following generator regulations in 2014 and 2016. In both instances, the nursing home corrected these deficiencies.

As power outages persist in Florida, the Hollywood facility is not the only one that lost power after the storm.

The Florida Health Care Association, which represents 81% of Florida's nursing centers -- but not the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills -- said about 150 facilities out of nearly 700 nursing facilities in the state do not have full power services restored. The association has said it is working with the state to identify homes without power in greatest need so utility companies can prioritize them.

More evacuations

The deaths prompted checks of other nursing homes in the area.

Police checked 42 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the city of Hollywood and, hours later, 79 residents from the Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach were evacuated to another facility because of the heat.

These South Florida facilities are among hundreds of nursing centers in the state. The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses and regulates these facilities, says there are 683 nursing homes in the state with more than 84,000 beds. In addition, there are more than 3,100 assisted living facilities with more than 99,000 beds.

CNN's Michael Nedelman, Steve Almasy, Emanuella Grinberg, Chris Boyette, Tina Burnside, Devon Sayers and Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.