Health Care

State lifts restrictions on indoor nursing home visits

Gloria Kravetz, 85, pulls down her mask and says “I love you” during a visit with daughter Amy Saunders at Birchwood Terrace in Burlington on Sunday, July 5, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The state announced new rules that would allow visitors to see their loved ones in nursing homes indoors, the first opportunity for indoor visits since the start of the pandemic in March.

Families have expressed concern about the mental health of their relatives in long-term care facilities, particularly patients with dementia who struggled to adjust to the visitation restrictions. Outdoor visits have been allowed.

“I know this remains difficult for all of us, but especially for those who have not seen family members since March,” said Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference Tuesday. “But we have an obligation to protect them and the staff, and we take that very seriously.”

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Tuesday that the state updated its guidance in response to new recommendations at the federal level. The rules went into effect on Monday.

The state’s long-term care department, Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, and an industry group worked together to craft the new recommendations, Smith said. 

Vermont long-term care facilities will have to take precautions in order to qualify, including regular staff testing at the facility, he said. The amount of staff testing varies by counties depending on their positivity rate, meaning the percent of the population that tests positive on a daily or weekly basis.

Several nursing home facilities, including Birchwood Terrace and Genesis Burlington Health and Rehabilitation, have seen patient fatalities from the virus.

At the lowest level of positivity, staff need to be tested at least monthly, he said. If the positivity rate of the surrounding county rose, the amount of testing would increase. A high positivity rate countywide or a positive case in the facility would suspend indoor visits. 

Indoor visits still have “strict parameters,” Smith said. “Increasing visitors to a facility will increase the risk of transmission.” Patients and visitors will be held to high standards.

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Some of the additional rules include mask wearing, physical distancing, and screening for symptoms, he said. Only two visitors will be allowed at a time, and staff must collect contact information for visitors in the event contact tracing is needed.

“This will be a huge change for our long-term care facilities, and we encourage families to be patient as they work to adopt these new expectations,” he said.

Adult day programs also have new guidance on how to host programs and events safely, Smith said. The state is planning a “soft launch” for programs to allow them time to figure out what works for them.

Most will continue to offer telehealth as they reopen physically, he said.

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Erin Petenko

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