Alabama nursing homes to allow limited in-person visits

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday the resumption on Oct. 2 of limited in-person visits to nursing homes more than six months after they locked down in response to coronavirus.

Each nursing home resident will be allowed one caregiver or visitor at a time. Nursing homes can only permit indoor visits if they have not had a positive coronavirus case in two weeks, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association. Facilities can limit the total number of visitors at one time and masks and social distancing will be required.

The Alabama Nursing Home Association provided the following guidance to family members:

· Do schedule an appointment to visit with your loved one

· Do use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before, during and after your visit

· Do wear a mask covering your mouth and nose during your entire visit in the facility

· Do maintain social distance of at least six feet from staff and residents

· Do keep out of areas that are not designated for visitation

· Don’t remove your mask while in the facility

· Don’t leave the designated visitation area

· Don’t come to the facility without an appointment

· Don’t come to the facility if you have any symptoms – coughing, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of sense of taste or smell – even if you attribute these symptoms to some other cause (allergies or cold).

More than 6,000 nursing home residents and 3,000 staff members in Alabama have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March. The facilities often house sick and elderly people at high risk of complications and death from the virus. But families have become increasingly concerned that policies designed to protect vulnerable residents have caused cognitive and physical decline as they struggle with isolation and loneliness.

“It’s important for nursing home residents and their family members to be able to visit in person and this is another step toward returning life to normal in nursing homes,” said Brandon Farmer, President & CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association. “We are pleased [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] is moving in this direction and thankful Governor Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris amended the state health order to accommodate this change.”

Some Alabama nursing homes have scheduled outdoor visits with family members. However, state regulators did not require outdoor visits or video calls with loved ones. The new guidelines require facilities to accommodate visits unless there are reasonable safety concerns.The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said outdoor visits are preferable to indoor ones and should be encouraged whenever conditions allow.

Anna Braden of Huntsville joined the Alabama group Caregivers for Compromise to advocate for visits with nursing home residents, including her father, who lives in Madison. She said the announcement is a step in the right direction.

“This is the first time that Governor Ivey has ever said anything about the residents on lockdown in any of her press conferences,” Braden said. “I was excited about that. Now the next step is working with each facility and I hope they aren’t too stringent.”

Braden still has a lot of questions about what visits will look like during the pandemic. It’s unclear whether visitors will be able to go into residents’ rooms or how long visits will last. Prior to the lockdown, Braden said she could come and go freely at her father’s nursing home to help him with showering and other tasks.

Also, under the new guidelines, nursing homes are encouraged to test visitors for coronavirus, or to have them tested elsewhere two to three days before visits, according to a press release from the Alabama Nursing Home Association. They will also have to pass a health screening prior to entry.

According to CMS, nursing homes in counties with positivity rates higher than 10 percent will not be permitted to hold indoor visits. As soon as conditions allow, facilities will be required to resume visits.

“I totally understand that they can’t just open it up like that,” Braden said. “I don’t want COVID to get into my dad’s facility either. But a lot of us just want to be able to put our hands on our loved ones and see them in person.”

Braden and Farmer said nursing homes will have to balance visitation with the need to protect residents from the virus.

“Resident safety is our top priority as we expand visitation and the CMS guidelines will be closely followed,” Farmer said. “The public must continue to do its part to lower the spread of COVID-19. Decreasing community spread and consistent testing are key to our ability to offer indoor visits.”

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