Health Team

At least 8 dead after Irma leaves Florida nursing home with no A/C

Police are investigating the deaths of eight nursing home residents in Hollywood, Florida, where oppressive heat and humidity set in after Hurricane Irma knocked out much of the power in the area.

Posted Updated
Michael NedelmanSteve Almasy
Emanuella Grinberg (CNN)

Police are investigating the deaths of eight nursing home residents in Hollywood, Florida, where oppressive heat and humidity set in after Hurricane Irma knocked out much of the power in the area.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills said the residents, ages 71 to 99, died "following a prolonged outage of our air conditioning system due to Hurricane Irma."

The center did not lose power during the storm, but it lost a transformer that powers the air conditioning, nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement late Wednesday. He added that the center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was made to local emergency officials and first responders, Carballo said, without specifying when.

"Staff set up mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility and continually checked on our residents' well-being to ensure they were hydrated," Carballo said. "We are devastated by these losses. We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

CNN reached out to Florida Power & Light for its reaction to that statement and has not yet heard back.

Questions abound

The nursing home's statement was the latest in a day of finger pointing among state officials, Florida Power & Light and the nursing home, leading to more questions than answers about how the sweltering conditions persisted for so long.

Jeffrey Nova said he learned of his mother's death Wednesday morning from a reporter who got his name and contact info from a nursing home employee. Communication with the staff had always been like "pulling teeth," so it did not strike him as unusual that they had not been returning his calls since Sunday.

Otherwise, he said he never experienced problems with the staff in the eight years his mother, Gail Nova, lived there.

"The staff has never been in any way disrespectful to me or my mom," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "But it was always a challenge to get them to give me any input when there was things that came up with her care."

One resident died late Tuesday at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and was taken directly to a funeral home. Three more were found dead on the second floor of the facility after rescue units were called in. Four more died in hospitals after the sweltering facility was evacuated Wednesday morning in a chaotic blur of events that prompted checks of other nursing homes in the area.

By Wednesday evening, the state had issued an emergency moratorium on the facility admitting new patients, and Hollywood Police were investigating whether any laws had been broken.

In his latest statement, Carballo attempted to clarify some of the outstanding questions.

"The Center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma. We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators," he said. "In compliance with state regulations, the Center did have a generator on standby in the event it would be needed to power life safety systems. The Center also had seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator."

Temperatures reached the 90s Tuesday in Hollywood; by Wednesday the heat index was near 100 degrees and low temperatures were in the upper 70s.

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 utility said it urges facilities with patients dependent on electricity-powered equipment, and who don't have power, to call 911 if there is a life-threatening situation.

Calls come in

The first rescue crews responded to a call from the facility around 3 a.m. Wednesday, for a patient in cardiac arrest. The patient was brought to the hospital and firefighters were called back to the facility at 4 a.m. to transport another patient experiencing breathing problems. Soon after, a third patient transport call came in, and the fire department sent over more crews, the City of Hollywood said in a statement.

Police Chief Tomas Sanchez described the second floor "as excessively hot." Hollywood Fire Chief Christopher Pratt said it was "more than likely" that heat played a factor in the residents' conditions.

In all, firefighters evacuated 158 people from the nursing home. Another 18 patients in an adjacent behavioral health facility also were evacuated.

Some were brought to Memorial Regional Hospital, just across the street from the nursing center, and were treated for for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues, said Dr. Randy Katz, medical director of Memorial Regional's emergency department.

Hollywood Hill's proximity to Memorial Regional was one of reasons Gail Nova stayed there, her son Jeffrey said, so she could seek care as she needed it.

"It was literally feet away," he said. "It fit the things she needed."

Governor wants answers

Apparently, the center was in contact with the state Department of Health after Irma.

Gov. Rick Scott said officials were in contact with the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills over the past three days. Hospital administrators were advised to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that the health or safety of patients was at risk, Scott said in a statement. Yesterday afternoon, the facility reported to the AHCA that they had power and access to fans and spot coolers provided by Memorial Healthcare.

"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."

Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families also launched investigations.

The nursing home has had a list 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.

Patients evacuated to hospitals

The incident raised concerns about the welfare of residents at other nursing centers. There are 683 nursing homes in Florida with more than 84,000 beds, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses and regulates these facilities. In addition, there are more than 3,100 assisted living facilities with more than 99,000 beds.

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 is working with the state to identify homes without power in greatest need so utility companies could prioritize them.

As a precautionary measure, police checked 42 more nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the city of Hollywood, Sanchez said. One of them was later evacuated because of the heat.

Police evacuated 79 residents of another nursing home in North Miami Beach on Wednesday, citing safety concerns about lack of air conditioning. Police used city trolleys to transport residents of Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to another facility, a spokesman said.

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