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Coronavirus a 'Category 5 emergency' for Florida's older population

"Over the past two weeks, Florida has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic," said the state CEO of a senior-living advocacy group.
The remaining residents are evacuated from Freedom Square of Seminole in Seminole, Fla. on April 17, 2020. Three nursing home residents have died of the coronavirus in an outbreak that has afflicted Freedom Square of Seminole.Dirk Shadd / Tampa Bay Times via AP file

Even as young adults have been the recent focus of concerns about growing COVID-19 cases across the United States, a Florida senior living advocacy group is likening the state's skyrocketing deaths to the kind of destruction caused by a catastrophic hurricane.

"If the coronavirus in Florida were a hurricane, its intensity in two weeks has reached Category 5 status," LeadingAge Florida CEO Steve Bahmer said during a video conference Monday.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health's latest figures for coronavirus cases among residents at long-term care facilities reached 4,798, a 139 percent increase since June 22. Cases among staff members rose 82 percent to 7,084 in the same time.

"Over the past two weeks, Florida has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic," Bahmer said.

Florida is particularly susceptible to the virus as older Americans tend to have underlying conditions that exacerbate its impact. One in five Floridians is 65 or older, according to a new LeadingAge Florida situation report on the virus.

Nearly half of the state's 5,319 COVID-19 deaths began as infections at long-term care facilities, according to AARP Florida's tally of state-maintained numbers. Yet residents and staffers of such facilities compose less than 2 percent of the state's population, said AARP Florida communications manager David Bruns.

"This is a national disgrace," he said. "This is wreaking havoc on a population that is the most frail and vulnerable of any population in the state."

LeadingAge is focusing its message on the state's U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans. Rubio's office did not immediately respond to a request for its response.

In an email to NBC News, Scott's office called the crisis "unprecedented. "It is clear there is still work to do to beat this virus. Senator Scott introduced the Affordable Coronavirus Testing Act to make sure all Americans have access to affordable COVID-19 tests."

LeadingAge is asking the pair to support new COVID-19 relief legislation if it includes funding for rapid testing, personal protective equipment, "hero pay" for elder care workers, and funding for "aging services providers," which it says are losing money amid the pandemic.

"There is a Category 5 emergency baring down on millions of older adults in Florida and across the United States," the organization's national CEO, Katie Smith Sloan, said during Monday's video conference.

"The pandemic is still raging," she said. "In fact, it's growing worse by the week. We need a major investment in real solutions now."

Sloan's organization advocates for more than 5,000 aging-related nonprofits across the nation. She criticized the federal government, which she said lacked a cohesive national plan to attack COVID-19.

"It didn’t have to be this way, but there was not coordinated federal response," Sloan said. "There's no prioritization of the most at-risk citizens.

"And now we're back to square one in so many ways."