As Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, I have the honor of overseeing an incredible organization that strives every day to repay the sacrifices made for our nation by our state’s 1.5 million veterans. We operate a network of six State Veterans’ Nursing Homes and one Domiciliary across Florida. More than 1,000 dedicated professionals work tirelessly to provide exceptional care to our veterans, including the nearly 800 veterans who call our facilities home. Providing loving care to our resident veterans is our most important goal and an immense responsibility. As such, the safety and welfare of our resident heroes is our top priority.
Over the last few weeks, our nation has endured a global crisis unlike anything we’ve experienced in most of our collective lifetimes. A widespread pandemic, seemingly following none of the patterns of past outbreaks, has taken the lives of nearly 54,000 Americans while infecting 957,000 more. The vast majority of our country has ground to a halt, and millions of people across America are faced with economic uncertainty. It’s understandable to be anxious, but we should not let fear of the unknown make this challenging situation worse.
Under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, FDVA is working in conjunction with state and local authorities to do everything we can to minimize the threat to our residents and staff in our long-term care facilities.Since the beginning of March, FDVA has been screening all staff, visitors and vendors to our network of state veterans’ homes. On March 11, the Governor made the difficult decision to restrict all visitor access to our homes, with the exception of those whose veteran is receiving end-of-life care. With enhanced cleaning protocols in place, our goal continues to be the elimination of as much risk to our residents and staff as humanly possible while continuing our efforts to provide skilled and loving care to our residents. This “no visitor” policy was undertaken to safeguard our predominantly older resident population, many of whom have multiple complex health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to complications from infection.
Our outstanding health care workforce is on the front lines waging a war against an invisible enemy. The unsettling reality they face every day is knowing that despite everyone’s best efforts, there is simply noguarantee COVID-19 will not enter their facility. There are individuals testing positive for COVID-19 who are asymptomatic. The simple and unfortunate fact is that our fight against this virus is an evolving one. Every day, we learn something new and it is our job to respond accordingly.
Even after enacting these proactive measures in our facilities, it was still not enough to prevent the virus from entering our veterans’ home in Broward County. At present, 14 of our residents in this home have tested positive for COVID-19. It was with a heavy heart that we also recently announced the passing of four of our hospitalized veterans due to complications from COVID-19.
It has been over a month since FDVA restricted visitor access to our nursing facilities. We fully understand the difficulty of being restricted from physical contact with your beloved family members. We also believe that sustained communication with family members and guardians of our resident heroes is essential. Many are using cell phones, tablets and computers to see and speak with their loved ones, and we encourage those efforts. Please continue to reach out and we’ll do everything possible on our end to facilitate communications between our residents and their friends and families. I appreciate the spirit of understanding we receive from family and guardians of our residents.
I personally could not be more proud of the leadership and dedication shown by FDVA employees within our facilities. Theirs is a daunting task of balancing a commitment to sustained communication with our community while maintaining the continued delivery of excellent care that our residents and their loved ones have come to expect from us.
They have families and children, too, but they march forward despite the risks to serve those who served us. Health care teams around the state are providing steadfast and loving care under some extraordinary conditions. The ability of the men and women of FDVA to quickly adapt to this ongoing crisis should be commended, and I am personally grateful for their selfless sacrifice.
Now, more than ever, it’s important for us to come together to face this challenge head on. Americans are always strongest when we are brought to our knees as a country, because we always bounce back more resilient, more united and more determined than before. We need to rally around our health care professionals, especially those in long-term care facilities, as they struggle to overcome this unprecedented national crisis. Those on the front lines need to know that we stand with them and appreciate their hard work. We’re in this together and they need our support.
Former State Legislator Danny Burgess is Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and is an Army Reserve Captain.