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How Florida health officials are protecting the elderly, those most vulnerable, from COVID-19

People can't get past the front door at a Sarasota facility if certain standards aren't met.

SARASOTA, Fla — We’ve now seen that the age group most susceptible to COVID-19 is the elderly.

In Florida, where we have one of the highest populations of retirees in the entire nation, that can present challenges. At Poet’s Walk, an assisted living facility in Sarasota, they showed us what they and other facilities are doing to try to protect their residents.

From the moment you walk in the door, you are immediately or asked if you’ve been traveling abroad or around anyone who has been sick and signs posted including at the front desk asking the same thing.

They have hand sanitizer all over the place, and they perform a visual assessment on every visitor.

If you can’t meet their standards, you don’t get past the front door.

“It could be dangerous,” said Earnestine Van Shaik, 75, who is cautiously concerned.

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It’s understandable. Earnestine and her fellow residents fall into the category of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 coronavirus, which has proven to be particularly deadly in elderly people.

“A lot of people haven’t encountered this. So, they don’t really recognize how serious it is,” Van Shaik said.

Denise Kircher is the executive director at Poets Walk in Sarasota, where they’re taking those pro-active steps.

“Our residents are our number one priority. So, we’re gonna make sure that they are safe and healthy,” Kircher said.

To do that, the facility Is almost constantly being wiped down. Signs are posted reminding people here to wash their hands frequently and cough into their elbow or sleeve.

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The same rules apply to guests and visitors, too.

“I would say everybody’s been very understanding. I mean, they all have the same goal. They’re here to visit their loved ones. They want to keep their loved ones safe,” Kircher said.

Florida and Maine are virtually tied as states having the highest percentage of retirement-age people, and statistics show COVID-19 has been particularly deadly among that group. "This is specifically a challenge to our older populations...Florida has a lot of these folks. We're lucky enough to have a lot of people that retire here," said Jeff Johnson, State Director of AARP Florida.

The CDC in China found 14.8 percent of those killed by the virus have been over 80-years old. That’s a far greater percentage than you see in younger age groups.

“They’re being very careful. And I hope everyone else is too,” said Janis Rauch, whose 78-year-old husband Steve has been residing at Poet’s Walk. “Because we don’t want to lose anyone.”

Health workers near Seattle now blame the virus for the deaths of at least nine elderly people at a single facility.

That’s a scenario Poet’s Walk, and hundreds of facilities like it around the state are working hard to avoid.

“I mean these residents and these families trust us with their lives,” Kircher said. “And we take that very seriously.”

In Hillsborough County, the director of emergency management says the county has been working on a plan with the Florida Department of Health since January. Crews are cleaning the eight senior centers managed by the county and making sure they have enough supplies to last through the duration of the outbreak. They're also preparing literature to give to seniors visiting the community hubs. There are no plans to close any of the senior centers during the COVID-19 spread.

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