Criminal investigators were looking Wednesday into 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 eight dead ranged in age from 71 to 99, authorities said. Four victims died in the nursing home and detectives had to recover one body from a funeral home, city officials said. The Broward County medical examiner has yet to determine whether all eight deaths are heat-related.
Detectives are looking into whether the nursing home broke any laws. “We are … not ruling anything out at this time,” Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said of the investigation.
A statement from the city indicated the facility still had some power.
“The initial investigation has determined that the facility’s air conditioning system was not fully functional. Portable A/C units were being used in the facility, but the facility was excessively hot,” the statement said.
The nursing home, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, said it had a “prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane (that hit Sunday).”
The state moved to place an emergency moratorium on the facility Wednesday night, which would block it from readmitting patients until the action is lifted.
Fire crews first responded to the facility at 3 a.m. Wednesday and answered another call at 4 a.m., city spokeswoman Raelin Storey said. A lieutenant called the battalion chief about the issues at the home, the city said. After a third emergency call, the fire department sent more crews to the scene.
Three bodies were found on the second floor. Sanchez said when he went to the scene “it was excessively hot on the second floor.”
Temperatures reached into the 90s Tuesday and Wednesday in Hollywood and the heat index was near 100 degrees. Low temperatures were in the upper 70s.
“More than likely the heat did play a factor” in the conditions of the residents, Hollywood Fire Chief Christopher Pratt said.
Governor wants answers
“I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement.
Scott’s statement said Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families also have launched investigations.
“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,” Scott’s statement said.
The facility reported Tuesday that its fans and spot coolers were in working order, and that it had power, according to the statement.
“Parts of the facility itself were energized” by Florida Power & Light, said Rob Gould, a spokesman for the company that owns FPL. “Can’t give you anything more specific than that at this point.”
Facilities had been told to dial 911 if they believed anyone was at risk, the governor’s statement said.
“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is responsible for the safety of their patients,” Scott said.
“We’re certainly all very disappointed that something like this could’ve taken place,” Mayor Josh Levy told CNN. “Unfortunately, emergency services were called obviously too late.”
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
Four victims died after being evacuated to Memorial Healthcare System facilities, city officials said. Memorial Regional Hospital is yards away from the nursing home.
Firefighters evacuated 158 people from the nursing home. Storey said at the city’s first news conference there were “a number of critical patients.”
“Most of the patients have been treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues,” Dr. Randy Katz, the medical director of Memorial Regional’s emergency department, said at a news conference.
Another 18 patients in an adjacent behavioral health facility are also being evacuated, Storey said. As a precautionary measure, police are checking the other 42 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the city of Hollywood, Sanchez said.
At a later news conference, Sanchez said one of those facilities was evacuated because of the heat.
The hospital has set up a hotline, 954-265-1074, so that families of nursing home residents can check on their loved ones.
“The loss of these individuals is a profound tragedy,” said a statement by the Florida Health Care Association, which represents 81% of Florida’s nursing centers. It does not, however, represent the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
“Approximately 150 facilities out of the nearly 700 (nursing) facilities in the state do not currently have full power services restored,” the statement said. The association added that it is working with state officials to identify homes without power so that utility companies could prioritize those in greatest need.
Police also started evacuating 79 residents of another nursing home in North Miami Beach on Wednesday, citing similar safety concerns about lack of air conditioning. Police used city trolleys as one way to transport residents of the Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to another facility, according to public information officer Brian Andrews.
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 Sen. Bill Nelson said he spoke to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin to ask him if Veterans Affairs medical facilities could be used to house elderly people, if necessary, and was told yes.