It’s been over three months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and nursing homes across the country are still on lockdown, which means residents have been physically isolated from their loved ones for months. This can add to their confusion, fear, and anxiety; the physical and mental health of many of them are declining. Zoom chats and phone calls can make the problem even worse if they don’t understand why they are separated from their loved ones.
Nursing homes have become hotbeds for the virus in recent months. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, COVID-19 has spread to at least 7,700 long-term care facilities in the country, which has led to at least 35,000 deaths. We’ve heard horror stories of nursing home employees going without PPE, bodies sitting in freezer trucks for hours on end, and some of the deadliest outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.
Keeping the virus out of nursing homes has been an uphill climb, but the longer their visitors stay away, the more likely it becomes that the mental – followed by the physical – health of these residents will deteriorate.
The U.S. Nursing Home Epidemic
We know that COVID-19 poses more of a risk to older residents, but the pandemic has revealed shocking gaps in care across the nursing home industry.
Researchers believe that 43% of all U.S. virus deaths occurred in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. These residents tend to need around-the-clock care, which can increase the chances of infection as staff members spend hours in close proximity to them. In some states, such as Washington and Pennsylvania, nursing homes make up as much as 69% of all COVID-19 fatalities. A single outbreak or mistake can lead to hundreds of deaths.
Many nursing homes have also been asked to take on people who have tested positive for the virus once they leave the hospital. Some facilities have had to set up COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 wards to make sure the virus doesn’t spread between the two, but this can be a nightmare for staff and administrators as they try to seal off certain rooms and departments.
This is why visitors are being asked to stay away until further notice. Some facilities may not have enough PPE for visitors, while others may be working with fewer staff members as some of their workers fall ill.
There’s No Alternative for Family
What happens when nursing home residents can’t see their family members and loved ones?
The results can be devastating. Many are becoming disoriented amid the pandemic. Others are looking increasingly frail.
Instead of seeing their spouse or child in person, they often have to rely on smartphone apps, video calls, and looking at family members through the window. Staff members are typically donned in full protective gear as they treat and feed these residents, which doesn’t always go as planned. The resident may be used to being fed by a family member, which can make all the difference in the world. Some may refuse to eat if they are fed by a staff member in a full hazmat suit.
Nursing homes do not have the ability to force people to eat. If the resident says they are finished eating after just two bites, there’s nothing they can do. However, family members and loved ones often have more leeway when it comes to these issues. A spouse can force their loved one to keep eating without overstepping their boundaries. They may also have the magic touch that helps them relax when eating, bathing, or dressing.
Sometimes calling family members during isolation or quarantine can only make matters worse, especially if the resident is older or suffers from dementia. A husband recalls calling his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, at the long-term care facility. His wife didn’t understand why he wasn’t there to take care of her. Explaining the reality of the virus didn’t do much good. She ended up screaming, “Why aren’t you here?”
How Long Before Visitors Can Safely Return?
The short answer: likely, months. The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) issued guidelines for allowing visitors back into nursing homes. These facilities must reach certain benchmarks before they can let visitors into the building; however, these rules are non-binding, and each facility will need to come up with its own plan for readmitting visitors.
First and foremost, the CMS says nursing homes should continue barring visitors until they have gone at least 28 days without a new case of COVID-19 originating onsite.
Additional benchmarks include:
- Reporting a decline in COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community
- Having the ability to provide all residents with a baseline COVID-19 test and all staff with weekly tests
- Having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning and disinfecting products
- No staff shortages
Each state and local government will come up with its own timeline for readmitting visitors. Considering how devastating outbreaks in nursing homes have been in the past, officials may hold off until they are absolutely sure it is safe to reopen these facilities to the public.
Clearly, visitation rights are about more than just keeping loved ones together. Not having visitors can lead to a range of health defects. Healthcare and senior organizations, including the AARP, are calling for more federal funding for nursing homes, so facilities can reach these benchmarks faster than they would on their own.