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Florida Authorities Continue Probe Into Nursing Home Where Patients Died

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Officials haven't said whether the heat at the rehabilitation center at Hollywood Hills led to the eight deaths. Now there is a criminal investigation into what happened. Because of that, the power company Florida Power & Light says it's limited in what it can say about the situation. So we called up New York Times correspondent Sheri Fink, and I asked her what sort of things investigators are looking at.

SHERI FINK: When you get this many deaths, this kind of a cluster of deaths which the nursing home associations were telling me yesterday they really hadn't heard about in other places happening - so why did this place stand out? What happened here? Why wasn't this prevented?

CHANG: What about the power company that supplied the power for this particular area, Florida Power & Light? Are they getting particular scrutiny in the criminal investigation?

FINK: Well, my sense is that everything is on the table, and there is a lot of finger pointing now as to who might be responsible for fixing the power that was coming into this facility. They actually had partial power. It was really the air conditioning system that wasn't functioning, and that required, according to information we heard yesterday - the nursing homes were repeatedly being told throughout this incident that they were a priority. They were being told this by the state. But on the ground, they were being told by the local power companies, we don't have you as a top priority, as critical infrastructure.

So there's a real disconnect between what the state felt, which was that - is that nursing homes should be a top priority for the power companies, including Florida Power & Light and then what may be happening on a local level. But it is really up to the nursing home itself, if the residents are in danger, to get them out of that danger. And every nursing home is supposed to have plans for evacuation.

CHANG: What was that plan for evacuation? Was there - is there an issue that evacuation should have happened much sooner?

FINK: I think that is a big question in this case. Why weren't people taken out? If this many people were in critical condition by the time that the hospital next door started to basically go bed by bed, looking at each patient, each nursing home resident - and they found 40 people in critical condition on Wednesday morning plus three people who had already died. So the first question really is, why didn't the residents get evacuated sooner? Every nursing home in Florida has to have a plan for evacuation. So the question might be, why didn't they enact that plan?

CHANG: How much backup power is a nursing home required to have?

FINK: So the regulations are pretty vague. The nursing homes have to have plans for sources of energy, alternative sources for energy. So it's not written in a specific way. It's not telling you that you need to have a specific type of generator, for example. And the other thing is that there is nothing in there about air conditioning.

New rules that come into effect in November do aim to address that because there is a little sentence in there that says that you need to maintain safe temperatures in an emergency. So what it all boils down to is that nursing homes are supposed to keep their residents safe. But I think when we see a case like eight deaths of these vulnerable residents in Florida, it really hits home as to why these regulations exist.

CHANG: Now, this isn't the only nursing home in Florida that lost power because of hurricane Irma. As of this morning, 64 nursing homes in the state were still without power. Do you have any sense of how those other nursing homes are handling this issue?

FINK: Yes, you're right. There are still dozens of nursing homes that don't have utility power. And I understand that many of them do not have air conditioning. Those are only the ones that the state knows about, and there is some concern that there are nursing homes that haven't been able to update their own status in the tracking system. They actually have to log in or call in and let the state officials know how they're doing.

That's also just the number of nursing homes. There are also many, many - what's called assisted living facilities. And there are many more of those than there are nursing homes. Some of them are very small places. And I understand that many of them have lost power, and many of them don't have good backup power systems. So there are efforts being made on a county-by-county level and on a state level to reach out to these places to see, do they need - you know, can we bring you a portable generator? Can we bring you some spot coolers, ice to keep your residents cool - and of course then in some cases when it's not safe to move the residents out of those very hot facilities.

CHANG: Sheri Fink is a correspondent for The New York Times, and she joined us via Skype. Thank you very much.

FINK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.