Families will be able to visit their loved ones living in nursing home indoors and in person “effective immediately,” state health officials said Monday.
The state’s Department of Public Health issued a new order, rescinding the restrictions on indoor visits.
The announcement came following a directive from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the federal Health and Human Services agency that oversees nursing homes.
Gov. Ned Lamont ordered restrictions on nursing home visitation in March, amid a surge of deaths and COVID-19 infections tied to a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash.
Monday’s announcement marks the first time visitors will be allowed inside nursing homes in nearly seven months.
Since the pandemic began, nursing homes have set up virtual visits between residents and their families through video chat services, and began allowing outdoor visits in the late spring. Others set up window visits, where family members would come up to a ground-floor window to see a resident.
But visitors have otherwise been prohibited from coming indoors except under special circumstances — typically end-of-life care.
“The emotional toll on residents and families has been intense. Not seeing your family in a (nursing facility) is not like not seeing your child who goes off to college. There is a high probability of seeing (your) kid in the future,” said Paul Liistro, managing partner of Manchester Manor Health Care Center in Manchester and Vernon Manor Health Care Center in Vernon.
The order comes with some restrictions.
Nursing homes must have had no new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days. Indoor visits will be suspended if a new case appears among staff or residents.
Homes also have to abide by infection control procedures — including cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, quarantining residents who are sick from those who are healthy, and restricting visitors to the resident’s room or visiting area once they go inside.
The visitation rules also allow other caregivers to go inside. The restrictions established in early spring also locked out social workers, volunteers and hairdressers, among others.
Liistro said the announcement was expected, but scheduling, screening and cleaning visiting areas will all be challenges.
“It is one more variable of risk. Essentially, fewer people we see allow us to control the environment. At the end of the day, we are living with the virus, not controlling it,” he said.
The directive from the federal agency overseeing nursing homes claims the decision was made based on concern over the mental and emotional health of nursing home residents.
“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 directive said. “Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety and other expressions of distress.”
Two trade organizations representing nursing homes said the move is especially important as temperatures drop, making outdoor visits no longer feasible.
“Moving to add the indoor visitation option, with the care and caution that is reflective in the new rules, is very well timed,” Matthew Barrett and Mag Morelli said in a joint statement.
Barrett heads the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities, an organization that represents for-profit nursing homes. Morelli heads LeadingAge Connecticut, an organization for non-profit homes.
The challenge will now be ensuring homes have adequate supplies — including protective equipment — to continue indoor visits safely, said state Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford.
He also expressed concerns about the long-term welfare of residents who have been isolated with limited visits from family.
“The isolation for nursing home was to prevent the spread of the virus. In reality, isolation does kill our elderly population,” Candelora said.
In a prepared statement, the governor defended his decision to lockdown nursing homes in the first place.
“Making the decision to limit in-person visits at nursing homes is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as governor, but amid the outbreak of this pandemic that is impacting the lives of so many people in our senior population, I knew it was the right thing to do,” Lamont said.