ALBANY — Most nursing homes can open to visitors immediately, the state announced Thursday evening.
All sanitary requirements — masking, distancing, hand washing, etc. — remain in place but the major barrier to visitation has been dropped: Facilities no longer must exclude visitors for at least 14 days after a resident or employee is confirmed COVID-positive.
For more than a year, nursing homes residents have been able to receive indoor visitors under limited circumstances or not at all. The restrictions were imposed to protect the residents of these facilities, who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and have died in great numbers because of it.
But the resulting isolation has created mental anguish for residents and family members alike, and led to calls for the state to ease restrictions.
On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said the state is relaxing the restrictions based on new federal guidance and because such a large percentage of nursing home residents statewide have been vaccinated.
Visitation restrictions that remain are for facilities where less than 70% of residents have been vaccinated (of which there are still some in New York) in counties where the positive COVID test rate is greater than 10% (of which there are currently none in New York).
“We now have three effective vaccines that are leading to significant decreases in long-term care COVID cases and a robust staff testing system to limit community spread from entering a facility,” Cuomo said in a news release. “Now is an appropriate time to take the next step and safely reconnect this community with their families.”
The number of COVID infections in New York nursing homes has plunged more than 80% since a mid-January peak amid the pandemic’s second surge, state officials said.
As of Thursday, 76% of all nursing home residents in New York have been vaccinated. The numbers are even higher in the Capital Region, ranging from 77% in Columbia County to 93% in Saratoga County.
The state Department of Health guidance issued Thursday suggests that visitation be done outdoors when possible.
It also directs that:
- Visitors who can’t or won’t follow infection prevention steps should be asked to leave or not be admitted.
- Residents infected with COVID or quarantined for potential exposure cannot receive visitors:
- Visitation can continue at a nursing home with active infections on site if the infection can be shown through testing to be limited to a single unit that can be isolated from visitors; if testing shows the virus spreading to other units, the facility must be closed to visitation until testing shows COVID present in just one or zero units.
- Visitors are urged to be tested and/or vaccinated but should not be required to do so as a condition of admittance of the facility.
- Compassionate-care visitation should be allowed at all times for residents who are nearing death or are suffering emotional complications from being in the facility.
Visitation in nursing homes and other group facilities has been an issue raised since mid-2020 by numerous critics and legislators including Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who has co-authored legislation that would allow visitation under certain circumstances, even amid a crisis such as the pandemic. In a prepared statement Thursday, he said:
“Although the Governor is finally making changes to nursing home visitation restrictions, it comes only after the legislature passed a bill I co-sponsored and put it on his desk. The truth is, despite bipartisan support from both houses, the governor chose not to sign our bill and instead make changes he could have made months ago. He delayed for months while nursing home residents experienced physical and emotional hardship due to continued isolation. The fact remains, there’s still a bill on his desk that would codify into law the needed guidelines for personal and compassionate caregiving visitation at residential health care facilities and it should have been signed long ago. I urge the governor to put the needs of vulnerable nursing home residents first and sign this long-overdue legislation.”