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Criminal probe opened into six heat-related deaths at Florida nursing home

Wednesday - 13/09/2017 15:53
Six patients at a Hollywood, Fla. nursing home died in Hurricane Irma's aftermath as people confronted a multitude of new hazards in the storm's wake. (Sept. 13) AP

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Federal, state and local authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of six nursing home residents who died of apparent heat-related causes after their facility lost air conditioning during the power outage triggered by Hurricane Irma.

Emergency teams descended on the nursing home early Wednesday after police got a 911 call about a heart attack at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said 115 people were evacuated, some in critical condition. Three people were found dead at the scene, two were pronounced dead at a hospital and one died during the evacuation.

Randy Katz, the medical director of Hollywood Memorial Hospital's emergency department, said he found a chaotic scene when he first entered the facility, which is directly across the street.

"When we were called to help, we mobilized at least 50 to 100 of our employees that left the hospital, ran down the street and pulled all of these patients out of the facility and made sure that they got to a safe place," Katz said. 

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He said most of the patients were being treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and other heat-related issues. About a dozen remained in emergency care by midday Wednesday. 

Sanchez said his office is working with the state attorney general's office and federal agencies to determine what kind of criminal charges may be filed against operators of the facilities.

He said they are determining exactly when the power went out and whether an on-site generator was used after losing power.

Some windows were closed when officers arrived, and they are trying to figure out whether that was an oversight or the windows were unable to open. 

The police chief said investigators are focusing on the second floor of The Rehabilitation Center, which was "extremely hot" when officers arrived. "We're examining all possibilities," he said.

In recent years, the facility had been cited by Florida Agency for Health Care Administration for problems with temporary generators.

During a February 2016 inspection, “the facility was not able to produce any written documentation, to substantiate” use of a temporary generator, according to an inspection document from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration data base.

In a December 2014 inspection, the remote generator alarm located near a nurses’ station “failed to function” when tested. The inspectors also noted in 2014 report that it was the “second temporary generator in at least 3 or more year which did not have any approval blue prints,” as required by the agency.

The 2014 inspection — conducted by the Florida agency to determine if the facility was fulfilling safety and other requirements for nursing homes participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs — found the facility Rehabilitation Center was “not in substantial compliance” and the operators were required to take a number of corrective measures, according to a letter to the facility from Florida AHCA.

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Jorge Carballo, the rehabilitation center’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, said the home “is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected."

“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills has evacuated this morning due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane," he said, according to The Miami Herald."Unfortunately, early this morning several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility and three at the hospital they were transferred to."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he will "aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place."

"Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe – especially patients who are in poor health," Scott said.  

Health care workers walk down streets filled with emergency equipment near Memorial Regional Hospital after five people reportedly died and more than 100 were evacuated at The Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills because of intense heat and no power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the victims died from the lack of air conditioning after the storm knocked out electrical power for several days.

Raelin Lohse-Storey, a spokeswoman for the city of Hollywood, said emergency crews quickly decided they needed to get everyone out.

"Once we determined that we had multiple deaths at the facilities, and that the facilities are extremely hot, we made the decision to evacuate all of the patients," Lohse-Storey said. 

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Jean Lindor, a kitchen worker, said through a Haitian Creole translator that the air conditioner had not been working since the storm and it had been hot inside.

Paulburn Bogle, a member of the housekeeping staff, said the place had been hot but manageable the past few days. The staff used fans, put cold towels and ice on the patients and gave them cold drinks.

Crews also began checking the status of the other 42 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the city. 

Relatives started showing up at the nursing home Wednesday afternoon trying to find out whether their loved ones were among the victims.

With the center surrounded by crime scene tape, they didn't know where to go. Police started escorting relatives behind the tape, walking them to a mobile command center set up across the street.

Gloria Flora Mitchell was looking for her sister, a 58-year-old stroke victim who can't talk.

"We don't know if she's there," she said. "We don't know nothing."

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy called on government agencies around the state to initiate immediate welfare checks of elderly and other vulnerable people in their communities. 

Temperatures were in the 90s in much of the state on Wednesday as nearly 2 million people were still out of power on Wednesday, according to Florida Power & Light.  
"I'd really like to implore upon everyone in Florida to check on your elderly neighbors and do what you can to make sure everybody is safe," Levy said. 

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