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Pa. nursing home residents still lonely, isolated despite vaccinations

The rest of the state will fully reopen May 31, but just one new case of COVID-19 at a long-term care facility separates families for weeks.

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania will full reopen on May 31, but restrictions at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities will remain in place. Many people are frustrated with the guidelines because just one new case of COVID-19 at a facility separates families for weeks, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status.

The vaccines brought hope for people like Donna Kessler. When nursing homes started to reopen in March, Kessler was finally able to see her 82-year-old mother in person at Genesis Healthcare’s Gettysburg Center. However, those visits ended March 15.

“I went in for a 30 minute appointment and that was the last time,” Kessler said.

After just one positive case of COVID-19, the entire facility was put on lockdown for two weeks. Visitation was suspended and residents were under quarantine, regardless of a negative test or vaccination status.

“When it would get close to that second week, there unfortunately would be another positive case so they would have to continue the lock down,” Kessler explained. “My mother, she’s of German background. She’s not a crier by any means, but it’s been frustrating for her and she cries.”

We’re getting answers for Kessler and her family. The current nursing homes guidance shares that facilities should allow responsible indoor visitation at all times for all residents, regardless of vaccination status of the resident or visitor unless:

  • Residents are unvaccinated and the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is greater than 10 percent and less than 70 percent of residents in the facility are fully vaccinated
  • Residents have a confirmed COVID-19 infection, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated
  • Residents are in quarantine, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, due to an recent outbreak

According to guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, visitation can still occur when there is an outbreak. If the first round of outbreak testing reveals no additional COVID-19 cases in other areas (e.g., units) of the facility, then visitation can resume for residents in areas/units with no COVID-19 cases, the guidelines state.

FOX43 reached out to the Gettysburg Center to learn why the entire facility is in quarantine. A spokesperson said they only have two units and both were impacted with one new case each.

“We understand the huge toll that separation has taken on our residents and families,” Lori Mayer, spokesperson for Gettysburg Center, said in a statement. “We are not only following these federal requirements, we are also exercising medical judgment in keeping residents safe during a pandemic. We look forward to opening up visitation again as soon as conditions allow.”

Families across the Commonwealth have been watching their loved ones deteriorate inside long-term care facilities due to social isolation. Many are questioning why the rest of the state can reopen if strict policies must remain in place at long-term care facilities.

Under the law, long-term care facilities are required to offer compassionate care visits. A spokesperson for the State Department of Health said “compassionate care” visits, such as an end-of-life situations or a resident in decline or distress, should be allowed at all times, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status, the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate, or an outbreak.

According to CMS, compassionate care situations include, but are not limited to:

• A resident, who was living with their family before recently being admitted to a nursing home, is struggling with the change in environment and lack of physical family support.

• A resident who is grieving after a friend or family member recently passed away.

• A resident who needs cueing and encouragement with eating or drinking, previously provided by family and/or caregiver(s), is experiencing weight loss or dehydration.

• A resident, who used to talk and interact with others, is experiencing emotional distress, seldom speaking, or crying more frequently (when the resident had rarely cried in the past).

A compassionate care visit is the only way Kessler is able to see her mom on Mother’s Day—but only for 30 minutes.

“They’re starting to see all these other things open up and she’s still in this room that doesn’t have the same kind of freedoms,” Kessler said.  

Here is the full statement from Gettysburg Center:

We understand the huge toll that separation has taken on our residents and families. Due to a recent outbreak, Gettysburg Center is offering compassionate care and end of life visits based on the resident's condition in an appropriate location. Please visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS, March 10, 2021) guidance on Nursing Home Visitation - COVID-19, Revised (QSO-20-39-NH). https://www.cms.gov/files/document/qso-20-39-nh-revised.pdf.  In particular,  please review the section referencing "if the first round of outbreak testing reveals one or more additional COVID-19 cases in other areas/units of the facility (e.g., new cases in two or more units), then facilities should suspend visitation for all residents (vaccinated and unvaccinated), until the facility meets the criteria to discontinue outbreak testing."  We are not only following these federal requirements, we are also exercising medical judgment in keeping residents safe during a pandemic. We look forward to opening up visitation again as soon as conditions allow.

Here are visitation guidelines for long-term care facilities from the Department of Health:

Currently, the guidance for nursing homes and hospitals allow visitors. While we remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19, we will also look for guidance from the federal government in regards to next steps for nursing homes and hospitals once more residents, patients and staff are vaccinated.

The current nursing homes guidance shares that facilities should allow responsible indoor visitation at all times for all residents, regardless of vaccination status of the resident, or visitor, unless certain scenarios arise that would limit visitation for:

•             Unvaccinated residents, if the COVID-19 county positivity rate is greater than 10 percent and less than 70 percent of residents in the facility are fully vaccinated;

•             Residents with confirmed COVID-19 infection, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, until they have met the criteria to discontinue transmission-based precautions; or

•             Residents in quarantine, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, until they have met criteria for release from quarantine.

The updated guidance also emphasizes that “compassionate care” visits, such as an end-of-life situation or a resident in decline or distress, should be allowed at all times, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status, the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate, or an outbreak.

You can find the current nursing home visitation guidance by clicking here.

Hospitals are allowed to set their own visitor policies in order to protect patient and staff safety. Click here for the latest guidance for hospital visitation.  

As the Department of Health licenses nursing home facilities and hospitals, the department continues to work tirelessly to provide resources and supports for these facilities to minimize exposure, prevent outbreak and ultimately keep residents, patients and staff safe as COVID-19 remains a threat in across our communities.

While the Secretary of Health’s Public School Attestation for Counties with Substantial Community Transmission and the Amendment to Nov 23 Mitigation, Enforcement, and Immunity Protections Order will lifting on May 31, the Department of Health will continue to enforce efforts for long-term care facilities and hospitals. These efforts include, but are not limited to, using and providing personal protective equipment, testing in all long-term care facilities, ensuring safety measures to protect staff and patients at hospitals.

If you or someone you know is struggling to see a loved one in a nursing home or long-term care facility, we want to hear from you. Send us an email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.

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