Now that vaccinations are on the rise and deaths are on the decline across the country, many nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have slowly begun reopening to visitors, allowing residents to finally visit with their loved ones after months of separation.
Nursing homes were overcome with the impacts of COVID-19, with fast-moving outbreaks that caused rapid rates of infection, morbidity, and more than 170,000 deaths of long-term care residents and staff throughout the country. The close quarters of nursing homes, combined with the fragile health of its population, required states to enforce aggressive precautions to limit COVID-19 exposure to prevent the continued spread of the Coronavirus within these types of facilities.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recognized that these drastic measures to protect the health of long-term care residents were also taking a mental and emotional toll on both the residents themselves and their families. The stress of separation often negatively impacted their overall well-being. The CMS has now loosened its restrictions on indoor visitations in nursing homes thanks to the decrease in infection rates and increase in vaccinations among nursing homes and the general population.
However, don’t expect visits to be like they were before COVID. Residents, staff, and visitors are still required to wear face masks and undergo temperature screenings, and the use of hand sanitizer is still requested at many facilities. The good news is that hugs or holding hands with loved ones is now allowed for the first time in a year.
“Residents must be able to exercise their rights to visitation, and facilities should be held accountable for ensuring such visits occur,” said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer at AARP, in a statement about the new federal guidance.
Policies still vary by state and can even differ from facility to facility, so expect some additional requests. Some states and nursing homes will require visitors to fill out additional paperwork, sign visitation agreements, or even show proof of a present negative COVID-19 test result before being allowed entry to the facility.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation to nursing homes and assisted living facilities will likely not return to normal any time soon,” said Steve Watrel, Coker Law’s nursing home and assisted living abuse and neglect legal expert. “Unfortunately, residents of long-term care facilities are unusually susceptible to negative outcomes from COVID-19 infections so it is important that safety protocols are implemented and followed by all. It will make visitation much more challenging, but better than the alternative of no-visitation policies if COVID numbers were to increase.”
There may also be different rules for essential caregivers, who can bypass some of the restrictions required of other visitors. In Florida, for example, outdoor visits are allowed regardless of whether a facility has an active COVID-19 outbreak, but indoor visits are allowed only in facilities that haven’t had an outbreak in the past 14 days. Visitors must wear masks and practice physical distancing.
The dark side of being able to visit with loved ones, in some cases, is that family members and caregivers are recognizing signs of neglect in these facilities. In late April, groups representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities in several states began asking state legislatures to provide immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
These efforts are underway in 16 states: Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey. These states have issued some level of immunity for healthcare providers over the course of the pandemic. For other states, this opens up the argument on whether nursing homes fall under a healthcare provider’s umbrella. Meanwhile, in Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell is seeking even broader legal immunities for medical workers during the pandemic.
“Many state legislatures, including Florida, have passed immunity bills that protect nursing homes and assisted living facilities from COVID-19 related claims,” adds Watrel. “Many of these bills provide very broad immunity to health care providers, which will make pursuing COVID-19 related claims very challenging. It is unfortunate that our legislators did not take a more tailored approach to the issue. There will be many meritorious cases that will be dismissed due to these immunity bills, which is fundamentally unfair, and violates the right to a jury trial for redress.”
However, while immunities may apply across a number of states, it will not apply in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. This could allow for loved ones to seek legal recourse for extreme cases of negligence. Lawsuits could target cases of negligence – from a lack of equipment or sufficient staffing – as in the cases against the Life Care Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. To date, more than 129 coronavirus cases and 37 deaths have been linked to the facility. There are numerous cases like this in several states across the country. Now that courthouses have re-opened in most states, we will see how they play out in a court of law.
If you believe that your loved one has been mistreated, injured, or passed away due to COVID-19 or neglect or abuse, Coker Law is here to help you navigate through these uncertain, difficult times. You can download a free copy of The Caregiver’s Guide to walk you through how to choose a nursing home in Florida and what to do if you suspect abuse or neglect.
Click here to set up a free consultation with Nursing Home Abuse Expert Attorney Steve Watrel. Our attorneys and support staff are available at any time through phone calls, emails, and video chat at (904) 356-6071.
Our thoughts are with all those affected by the Coronavirus, and we wish to express our utmost gratitude to the healthcare professionals who are working to care for and protect our elderly.