Visits to nursing homes resume in half of US states to the relief of families

(From left) Ina Barbosa, of Attleboro, Mass., and Kimberley Vann-Lites, of Norton, Mass., visit with their mother, Mary Vann, age 85, in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down visits to Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston's Roslindale, on June 11, 2020.

(Kaiser Health News)States across the country are beginning to roll back heart-wrenching policies instituted when the coronavirus pandemic began and allow in-person visits at nursing homes and assisted living centers, offering relief to frustrated families.

For the most part, visitors are required to stay outside and meet relatives in gardens or on patios where they stay at least 6 feet apart, supervised by a staff member. Appointments are scheduled in advance and masks are mandated. Only one or two visitors are permitted at a time.
Before these get-togethers, visitors get temperature checks and answer screening questions to assess their health. Hugs or other physical contact are not allowed. If residents or staff at a facility develop new cases of Covid-19, visitation is not permitted.
    As of July 7, 26 states and the District of Columbia had given the go-ahead to nursing home visits under these circumstances, according to LeadingAge, an association of long-term care providers. Two weeks earlier, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services clarified federal guidance on reopening nursing homes to visitors.
    Eighteen states and the District of Columbia were similarly planning to allow visits at assisted living centers.
    Visitation policies may change, however, if state officials become concerned about a rise in Covid-19 cases. And individual facilities are not obligated to open up to families, even when a state says they can do so.
    Relaxing restrictions is not without risks. Frail older adults in long-term care are exceptionally vulnerable to Covid-19. According to various estimates, 40% to 45% of Covid-related deaths have occurred in these facilities.
    But anguished families say loved ones are suffering too much, mentally and physically, after nearly four months in isolation. Since nursing homes and assisted living centers closed to visitors in mid-March, under guidance from federal health authorities, older adults have been mostly confined to their rooms, with minimal human interaction.
    The goal was to protect residents from the coronavirus as the pandemic began to escalate. But the virus entered facilities nonetheless as staffers came and went. And now, families argue, the harms of isolation exceed potential benefits.