JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As COVID cases surge, we are hearing story after story of families separated from their loved ones as they battle the virus in isolation. Now there is a push to change that. Hundreds of people have signed a petition that started on the First Coast calling on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to change policies that deny families access to their loved ones hospitalized with COVID.
“I don't think any disease or transmissible disease should keep loved ones away when they're in those critical stages. I don't think that is that is right,” Mitch Arbelaez said.
He is grateful for every moment with his wife, Michelle.
“Thirty years, seven months, four days and an hour and forty minutes. She was my bride,” Mitch said.
On Aug. 8, 15 days after she walked into Ascension St. Vincent’s Southside Hospital with COVID, she died. Michelle Arbelaez was 53.
“Michelle was just a gem of a person. She just had the quality of that quiet, powerful force that she would make people feel heard. I asked her to marry the moment I met her,” Mitch Arbelaez said.
They shared their lives, had four children and traveled the world together as missionaries. But in the end, Michelle Arbelaez died with no family by her side due to hospital protocol.
“It’s just heartbreaking really to not be able to have our whole family there in her last moments,” Alyssa Arbelaez, Michelle’s 15-year-old daughter said.
“Wednesday the 4th we got a call she had crashed. We drove to the hospital right away,” Jayden, Michelle’s 17-year-old daughter, explained. “They put us in protective gear, a face shield, mask, and we were allowed to be in there until they closed it off.”
The day before Michelle passed away, Mitch was allotted two hours with his wife. It was his birthday. He says he was the only one allowed in her room at that time. Jayden waited outside the hospital for about an hour.
"Then I looked up and there were construction workers,” Jayden said. “I told them the situation. I said, ‘My mom was going to die. Is there any way that I can get to that window?’”
She says they gave her safety gear, led her to the roof and allowed her to touch the window of her mother's hospital room.
“I'm visiting with my wife, playing worship music, praying for her, stroking her hair, telling her I love her,” Mitch said. “And I hear a knock on the window and there’s Jayden in a hard hat, a safety vest, rubber boots.”
Over speakerphone, they prayed together.
“It was sad that I couldn't be there to hold her hand in that last day, those last hours, but at least being able to, you know, look in the window and see her and see my dad, I was very grateful to those construction workers,” Jayden said.
“Even if the whole situation is so confusing, God is still able to bless us. She was still able to be there, and it's just a special moment. It's a special blessing. That one moment right there, that one picture right there is a proof of how he's with us,” Alyssa said.
“My daughter wanted to be near her mom, wanted to be at that window, even if she couldn't come into the ICU, couldn't touch her for the last time, she wanted to be at that window,” Mitch said.
Hours later Michelle passed away with no family by her side. Her husband and children don’t want any other family to have to say goodbye that way.
“My last words to my mom were through a FaceTime call, and I hope that no child has to go through that,” Jayden said.
Their story prompted Darlene Guerra, who lives in St. Johns County, to start a Change.org petition to allow families access to COVID patients.
“My hope with this petition is to reach our governor and to see if we could start the conversation if nothing more just here in Jacksonville with our city officials, with hospital officials,” Guerra said. “That human touch, that love from your family, nothing can replace that, and I just don't think that anyone should have to die alone.”
For the Arbelaez family, the separation only compounded their heartache and grief.
“It’s difficult to not be there when you realize, you know, the final heartbeat, the final breath, and she's gone. And to not be holding her hand during that. It's just, it's painful,” Jayden said. ”I think I think it does need to change. I think it could change.”
Ascension St. Vincent’s sent this statement to First Coast News:
"We do everything possible to accommodate visitors within the parameters of our current policies and procedures, which are in place for everyone's safety, and we did so in this case, with family members being permitted to visit multiple times over multiple days.
The health and safety of our patients, associates, and visitors are our top priorities. We have rigorous infection prevention protocols in place at all times that are based on guidance from government health officials including the CDC and Florida Department of Health. We are routinely adjusting our protocols and policies during this rapidly evolving situation.
We know how important and impactful it can be for a hospitalized patient to see loved ones and we take this into account when making visitation adjustments. We have worked hard throughout the pandemic to maintain the best possible balance between compassion and keeping everyone safe. One of the many heartbreaking aspects of this virus is that its high transmission rate requires us to be vigilant around each other, especially those with COVID-19.
Our region has some of the nation’s highest COVID-19 positivity rates and we have an obligation to ensure we are doing everything possible to promote public health and safety by limiting opportunities for the virus to spread. We’ve adjusted our visitation policy accordingly. For now, our visitation policy is that:
- Hospitalized patients are not generally able to have in-person visitors at this time unless the patient’s nursing staff deems it necessary.
- Labor and delivery patients may have one designated visitor per patient, as well as a doula if needed.
- Minors can have up to two designated visitors (their parents or guardians).
- If a hospitalized patient’s care team determines the patient is at end-of-life or if the patient must have a caregiver, one visitor is allowed with all appropriate personal protective equipment, for patients with COVID-19 or otherwise.
We encourage and facilitate virtual visits whenever possible. All approved in-person visitors are required to complete a health screening for entry and wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose at all times, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.
Visitors who have a known COVID-19 exposure, have tested positive for COVID-19, or have a pending COVID-19 test cannot visit unless there are clearly documented extenuating circumstances and the patient’s care team approves the visit. Visitors who repeatedly refuse to follow our policies, including the visitation policy and our infection prevention policies, may be asked to leave so that we can continue to maintain a safe environment for all involved.
We do everything we can to be as flexible as possible while maintaining a safe and healing environment. These are difficult decisions to make and we look forward to a time soon when we can safely allow additional visitors.
The best way you can help all local hospitals and health systems return to their pre-pandemic hospital visitation policies is by ensuring you and your loved ones get vaccinated against COVID-19 and continue to practice virus mitigation strategies like hand-washing, masking, and social distancing.
We thank everyone for their patience during this time."
First Coast News also reached out to Governor DeSantis' office.
Tiffany Vause, Deputy Chief of Staff with the Agency for Health Care Administration said, "The federal government (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS]) has waived patient rights requirements related to visitation in areas considered to be impacted by widespread outbreak of COVID-19. Please [click here] for a complete list of all CMS COVID-19 Emergency Declaration Blanket Waivers for Health Care Providers."
Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said, "Governor DeSantis sympathizes with the Arbelaez family, and anyone who has lost a loved one due to COVID-19. The loss and grief is only compounded by the fact that the family members were not able to be at her side in her final moments."
She went on to say, "Based on what we hear from hospitals, the vast majority of patients who are severely ill with COVID-19 did not get vaccinated and also did not get monoclonal antibody treatment (MAB). Many of them might have been saved from life-threatening illness if they had. Both vaccines and MABs are available throughout the state, free of charge to all eligible Floridians."
- Vaccine Locator: https://floridahealthcovid19.gov/vaccines/vaccine-locator/
- Monoclonal antibody treatment for high risk COVID patients: https://floridahealthcovid19.gov/monoclonal-antibody-therapy/