Facing mounting scrutiny, Freedom Square of Seminole director says proper precautions were taken

SEMINOLE — Facing mounting scrutiny following allegations of mishandling a deadly COVID-19 outbreak on its campus, the executive director of Freedom Square of Seminole says the elder-care facility took appropriate measures to keep its residents safe.

SEMINOLE — Facing mounting scrutiny following allegations of mishandling a deadly COVID-19 outbreak on its campus, the executive director of Freedom Square of Seminole says the elder-care facility took appropriate measures to keep its residents safe.

Freedom Square, which is at 7800 Liberty Lane directly east of Seminole City Center, became the epicenter of COVID-19 concerns in Pinellas County in April when the novel coronavirus found its way inside the facility’s rehabilitation center.

By April 21, a total of 54 residents and patients had tested positive at the building at the source of the outbreak, Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation. In response to the rapid spread of the disease, officials evacuated all 95 patients of the building to area hospitals and facilities.

In total, 39 residents and one staff member have died at the sprawling Seminole campus that includes independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. According to the Florida Department of Health, the death toll would be the fourth-highest of long-term care facilities in the state.

“Like so many across the state and country have learned, regardless of the rigorous measures we took, this ruthless novel coronavirus found its way onto our campus,” Freedom Square executive director Michael Mason wrote in an email to Tampa Bay Newspapers on Dec. 9. “What we learned early on in the pandemic is that this disease does not discriminate and even strictly adhering to the recommended protocols, unfortunately, does not guarantee us, our employees or our residents’ immunity.”

However, lawsuits from family members who died allege the facility did not take the appropriate measures and only later did so after the Department of Health and county intervened.

“Defendants chose to place profits over residents and ignore deficiencies in their emergency preparedness plan and in their infection prevention and control program,” according to a complaint filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court by the estate of Christopher Pugh, a resident of the facility who died during the outbreak, against the owners of Freedom Square and one of its administrators. “When Defendants' deficiencies became more pronounced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Defendants continued to choose to place profits over residents by refusing to be forthcoming with the authorities, staff, residents, and residents' relatives of the potential dangers of COVID-19 and of the COVID-19 positive cases at the Facility.”

The lawsuit also alleges Freedom Square failed to supply or require staff to wear personal protective equipment and allowed asymptomatic staff who had been exposed to the virus to continue working at the facility.

A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation documented similar allegations from patients, their family members and staff.

The claims were enough that U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist on Dec. 9 called on Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to investigate the facility.

“The families of those who have lost loved ones deserve nothing less than a full accounting of what went wrong and full accountability for those responsible,” Crist wrote in a letter to DeSantis, adding that the state should investigate the “clearly inadequate regulation and oversights of Florida’s long-term care facilities.”

Mason responded by claiming Freedom Square tried to prevent, mitigate and manage the spread of the virus.

“This included updating procedures and putting infectious disease protocols in place as guidance from experts became available,” he wrote. “This has also involved testing the fit of all N-95 masks for all employees, requiring PPE training for donning and doffing equipment, and increasing the testing of both residents and employees utilizing rapid and PCR tests. We also had, and maintain today, a process for screening all those who came onto the campus, a protocol to report any sign of illness, and sick leave policies to encourage anyone feeling ill to stay home, quarantine and get tested.”