GLENVILLE — New state regulations took effect Friday that allow some greater freedom for relatives to visit loved ones at nursing homes.
The Glendale Home was a happy place, as visitors walked in after a year of lockout.
However, the Glendale Home reopened not because of the relaxed state regulations, it reopened because it reached the threshold of the old state regulations: It was COVID-free for more than 14 days.
The 14-day limitation remains in effect, and as of Friday only 194 of 610 nursing homes statewide meet that requirement, which is still a high hurdle to clear on the tail end of the huge post-holiday surge in COVID-19 in New York.
There’s a delicate balance there: COVID killed more than 15,000 eldercare facility residents in New York since March 1, 2020, including thousands in the past few months, and the state is trying mightily to prevent further deaths.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is being criticized from both sides on the issue, as having done too little in early 2020 to protect nursing home residents and too much in early 2021, now that 71% of these residents statewide have completed vaccination.
Whatever the Cuomo administration did or failed to do for nursing homes in the early days of the pandemic — the matter is hotly debated still — the only way for COVID to get into a nursing home now is via the people who walk in the doors, so that’s the focus.
A state Department of Health spokesman pointed to this on Friday:
“While we understand the anguish this virus has caused nursing home residents and their families, by adhering to the new DOH visitation guidance, nursing homes are taking the proper steps to protect the lives of nursing home residents. Due to continued community spread, keeping this virus out of congregate settings remains our top priority, and asymptomatic spread remains a concern in all corners of the state. As we move forward, science and safety will continue to guide our decisions on visitations and we’ll continue to closely watch the data while also acknowledging that this pandemic is not over and people are still at risk.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who has clashed previously with the Cuomo administration on this subject, said Cuomo’s announcement last week that visitation would resume Friday built up expectations that were dashed Monday, when the full directive was released and it was revealed that the 14-day rule remains in effect.
“The regulations that came out afterward simply don’t match the rhetoric. In fact, it’s still very difficult to visit,” he said. “This is very typical of the governor. When you get into the details you find out he’s not doing very much here.”
Santabarbara believes there is a better way to balance safety and compassion, and emphasized that COVID isn’t the only threat to people in nursing homes.
“Nursing home residents are still continuing to experience physical and emotional pain due to this isolation.”
He and Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, are co-sponsoring legislation that would give patients in residential health care facilities access to visitation despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Elaine Hickey of Niskayuna is one of those relatives who’ve been fighting for access for most of the year. For months, she and her husband couldn’t see their daughter in the group home where she lives, and now they still can’t see his parents at their respective facilities in Rome.
She fully respects the need for COVID infection control: She, her daughter, her husband and both of his parents have all contracted and recovered from COVID.
But the restrictions can relax, she said. “I think we’re post-second surge, post-vaccine, how much more immune can we get?”
Nursing home residents typically are nearing the end of their lives, Hickey noted, and suffer without the emotional boost of seeing their families.
“It is time for them to have some joy in their lives,” she said.
She dismissed Cuomo’s announcement Monday as “throwing crumbs” to advocates like her, but added she is not a Cuomo hater.
“I have to say I have been supportive of the governor and his actions through the pandemic,” Hickey said. He did a good job flattening the curve, she said, but appears now to be reacting to the backlash over the high nursing home death toll.
She doesn’t focus on that, either.
“I personally think everyone did the best they could at the time.”
AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Nursing home operators appreciate the need for family contact with residents, and will likely open when they can.
Wilkinson Residential Healthcare Facility in Amsterdam was one of the nursing homes that ran a successful campaign against COVID for much of 2020, then got hit in the second wave with a round of infections and a series of resident deaths.
The last resident infection was confirmed on Dec. 25, and the population is long since COVID-free. However, a staff member from an ancillary department at St. Mary’s Healthcare tested positive late this month, reseting the clock to zero. The earliest Wilkinson can open to visitation is March 8.
Barring any news infections, it plans to open that day.
Wilkinson administrator Todd Zbytniewski said given the recent level of infections in Montgomery County, the facility is going to be cautious about testing.
“On a recent call with resident family members, we discussed how they felt about the new visitation guidelines and their thoughts on testing,” he said via email. “Currently, per the state’s guidance, testing for visitors is only required if your county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is 5% or greater. We have made the decision, in conjunction with resident family members, that as long as supplies and resources are available, we will be testing all visitors that enter Wilkinson.”
Centers Health Care in the Bronx, a large operation that has 10 facilities in and near the Capital Region, said each of its nursing homes makes the call based on its own situation, but the shared goal is to open as soon as possible after the 14-day threshold is crossed. State approval is required, which can take a day or two, and appointment and testing systems have to be set up before the visits can actually happen, so the doors may not open exactly on day 15.
“All in all, although most of our facilities have zero positive cases currently, we are cautiously optimistic about these numbers as we welcome back families in the very near future,” a spokesman said via email.