In mid-September, the federal government relaxed coronavirus restrictions on visiting nursing homes. It is a welcome change for many residents and their families who have been unable to meet face-to-face since March 2020.
The lift of the federal ban does not necessarily mean that all nursing homes allow visits. Several states still have restrictions in place, and facilities still have the ability to limit visits as needed to prevent future outbreaks.
Why Were Nursing Home Coronavirus Visiting Restrictions Lifted?
Since the coronavirus touched down in the United States, government regulators have tried to balance the need for increased protections with people’s ability to carry on some semblance of regular life.
Coming up with rules to keep any community safe in this climate is difficult, but with nursing homes, it’s particularly challenging.
Nursing home populations are extremely vulnerable to infection. Once the coronavirus is inside a facility, it can do tremendous damage quickly. Some 40% of all coronavirus deaths in the country have been related to nursing homes.
The recent decision to lift nursing home visitation restrictions is part of a gradual reopening process overseen by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that regulates most nursing homes in America.
During the first peak of coronavirus cases in March, CMS issued strict nursing home visitation guidelines. Once the number of cases began to subside in May, they released reopening recommendations for how facilities could phase back to more normal operations.
Since then, outbreaks in nursing homes have been much more limited, and many facilities have been able to open their doors.
The latest CMS guidelines, issued on Sept. 17, largely drop the ban on visitations altogether.
There are still a number of extra safeguards that everyone needs to follow, but many residents and families will finally be able to meet with one another again.
The Physical and Emotional Toll of Distance
The decreased number of nursing home coronavirus infections is only part of the reason why CMS chose to drop restrictions.
“While CMS guidance has focused on protecting nursing home residents from COVID-19, we recognize that physical separation from family and other loved ones has taken a physical and emotional toll on residents,” the agency said. CMS then listed some of the severe problems that can develop:
“Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other expressions of distress. Residents living with cognitive impairment or other disabilities may find visitor restrictions and other ongoing changes related to COVID-19 confusing or upsetting.”
As much as families and loved ones may understand the need to protect nursing home residents during a pandemic, the lack of contact has certainly come with its own costs.
The new guidance is a reflection of the agency’s understanding that “nursing home residents derive value from the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they receive through visitation from family and friends.”
Visitation is important, but it must be done safely.
What Are the New Coronavirus Nursing Home Visitation Guidelines?
CMS’s new guidelines keep in place the core infection-prevention rules for nursing homes issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and outline how to conduct safe indoor and outdoor visits.
Some facilities will be able to provide coronavirus testing to visitors, though it is not required for all nursing homes to do so.
In addition to the possibility of taking a test, visitors to nursing homes should expect:
- To be screened before they enter the facility for signs of COVID-19. This could include a temperature check, and questions or observations about their condition.
- To be turned away if they are showing signs or symptoms of COVID-19.
- To practice hand hygiene.
- To practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.
- To observe signage (using certain entrances or taking certain routes through the building as signs may indicate).
- To wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose.
Outdoor visitation is preferred because the risk of spreading the virus is much lower than indoors. If there is a courtyard or outdoor area close by, that might still be the best place to meet, rather than inside the nursing home itself.
Facilities that do not have outdoor accommodations should still try to support visitation, according to CMS, although they need to take extra precautions. These include limiting the number of visitors at any one time, limiting movement within the facility, and ensuring that visitors practice safe distancing and hygiene.
To help facilities accommodate outdoor visits, CMS has made funds available for the purchase of tents, plexiglass dividers, and other products.
Even with the relaxed visitation guidelines, it’s still a good idea for families and friends to keep in routine contact with residents. There are ways to advocate for loved ones in nursing homes without setting foot on the premises.
Visit safely, stay in touch, and speak up if you see anything unsafe. Nursing homes can be dangerous places even during the most “normal” of times, and coronavirus has not made them any safer.