Send Ben: Jacksonville day care worker infected with COVID-19

Department of Health not required to tell DCF or public about individual cases

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Day cares like All Saints Early Learning and Community Care Center in Lakewood are allowed to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic, and grandmother Kathleen Cantrell is happy about that.

“I trust this place implicitly,” Cantrell said.

But in an Action News Jax investigation, Ben Becker uncovered one worker at All Saints tested positive for COVID-19.

Becker spoke on the phone with Executive Director Marian Wilcher, who emailed Becker a letter sent to parents April 17. It says they were notified on April 13 “that a nursery staff member had come in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.”

The letter goes on to say, “Today, April 17th, we were informed one of our staff tested positive for COVID-19. Her last day in contact with any staff or children at All Saints was April 9th.”

Wilcher would not talk on camera, but told Becker that All Saints closed for financial reasons and did not reopen again until May 4.

“Did you inform the Florida Department of Children and Families that you had a case once you knew?” Becker asked Wilcher. Her answer was “no,” and Becker later learned that day cares are not required to inform DCF.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order from April 1 says day cares should “coordinate with the local county health department and communicate with parents and providers” but makes no mention of DCF, the agency that regulates day cares.

Becker then spoke with Dr. Pauline Rolle, the Interim Director of the Duval County Department of Health.

“You can’t confirm or deny there have been any cases of COVID-19 with workers at day care in Duval County? Becker asked Rolle, who said privacy laws keep her from confirming COVID-19 among day care workers or children. All she could say is there are no outbreaks.

But, sources told Becker that during a recent public meeting, Rolle mentioned there were multiple COVID-19 cases involving Duval County day cares, not just at All Saints.

“Did you acknowledge there are cases of COVID-19 in day cares?” Becker asked Rolle.

“I don’t recall acknowledging that,” Rolle said.

“I have multiple sources that said you did,” Becker responded.

“I can’t say what they heard,” Rolle said.

“Do you think there should be more transparency in the system regarding day cares?” Becker asked.

“Obviously you do,” Rolle said.

In a follow-up email, the Duval County Department of Health admitted it is not required to notify DCF if a COVID-19 case is confirmed or even investigated in a day care.

“This should be public knowledge at this point,” said Dr. Mohammed Reza, an infectious disease specialist with the Mayo Clinic and a father of three.

“Children can contract COVID-19, an infection but to a milder degree in general,” Reza said.

Becker took his findings to DCF, also asking if the agency is performing in-person visits to verify that open centers are complying with Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention guidelines, but after a dozen requests, DCF never responded.

Becker contacted the Florida Department of Health, and a state spokesperson told him “there have not been any cases associated with exposure in a day care.”

Becker responded saying a local day care worker had tested positive after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and asked if the agency would change its reporting policy, as it did with nursing homes, but he never heard back.

As for Cantrell, she said day care families should not be left in the dark.

“That would be nice to know so you can make a better decision -- if should I keep them or let them go,” Cantrell said.

The state has also encouraged day cares to stay open, with a $500 stipend for every child of a first responder and up to $12,000 over a three-month period. It is unclear if those children are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus.