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By Peter Cox 

State eases rules on senior facility visits


June 26, 2020

Peter Cox / MPR News

For the first time in months, many Minnesotans in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are being allowed to see visitors face-to-face — at least, with masks on.

The Minnesota Department of Health says facilities may now offer outdoor visits and through open windows.

Coronavirus infections have led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Minnesotans living closer together in those facilities where many have vulnerable health issues. Staff have also fallen ill amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state has tried to implement restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, including limiting visitors in all but end-of-life situations at nursing homes.

The new guidance was made public last week. Facilities are allowed to implement them immediately, though they must follow strict guidelines. Residents positive for COVID-19, or who have symptoms, or are in quarantine may not take part in visits.

What to know if you are visiting:

• You’ll be screened for COVID-19 symptom.

• You must use an alcohol-based rub on your hands as you enter and exit the outdoor area.

• Everyone must wear masks.

• Maintain at least 6 feet of distance, including children; no touching.

• Visits through open windows are allowed with proper distancing, and masks are required.

Before allowing outdoor visitation, long-term care centers must:

• Establish a schedule of visiting hours.

• Have staff members present to help residents and wipe down visitor areas.

• Outdoor areas must be accessible to visitors without their having to enter the facility.

MDH commissioner Jan Malcolm said the move addresses the isolation many elderly people are feeling.

“We know that visitor restrictions, while well-intended to protect residents from infection, have been extremely challenging for residents and families, including so many of us, over these last several months,” she said.

Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, an association representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said she understands the desire for families and friends to unite, even while the pandemic claims lives.

“We do have the sense that there’s this pent-up need,” Cullen said. “We don’t want family members rushing to hug their loved one after all of these months of being so very careful. So, we’re urging continued patience as we look at this.”

Cullen said not all facilities will be able to comply with the guidelines depending on how outdoor spaces are configured, or they may not have enough staff to screen and monitor visitors.

“We want folks to know that everyone wants the same thing,” she said. “But it’s not going to be a flip of the switch overnight. It’s going to take folks time to set up what they need to get set up. And family members are strongly encouraged to learn the rules to that. They’ve got to wear face masks. And if they feel sick, please don’t come.”

Along those lines, Malcolm said that preventing infection is still paramount.

Statewide, the number of cases reported by staff and residents has fallen since facility-wide testing began — from more than 1,000 cases over one week in mid-May to around 370 by the end of the month.

While the spread in long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes, has slowed, many facilities in the state are still dealing with cases. They’re also trying to keep staffing levels high, knowing that more cases could come in the fall.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is very serious and very threatening to long-term care residents and that many safety restrictions are going to need to remain in place for quite some time,” Malcolm said. “But we also understand the need to balance health in the larger sense and psychosocial well-being with these restrictions.”

Cullen warned that a back-to-normal scenario is not close.

“I continue to tell people we will never go back to where we were,” she said. “Unless we have a vaccine and we have herd immunity … we’re not going to go back to where we were.”

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