The global COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many people. One group of people who have suffered greatly are residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, and their families.
Long-term care facilities house vulnerable populations—the aged and disabled. Already in poor health, this population was particularly hard hit by the pandemic. In response, most facilities shut down to visitors in order to avoid exposing residents to COVID. In order to prevent cross-contamination, residents were frequently confined to their rooms.
While most of these measures were necessary and were in the best interest of the residents, there is no doubt that restrictions had a negative impact on residents. Essentially, residents were detained in near solitary confinement for well over a year. Many residents died without having seen family members for months. The circumstances were, at best, sad.
Now, with the advent of the COVID vaccines, there are opportunities to visit safely with family members confined to long-term care facilities. The colloquial term for a nursing facility is nursing home. It is a home to the individuals who reside in the facility. Since it is their home, residents of nursing homes have the legal right to have visitors of their choosing at any time of their choosing.
While a resident’s right to visitors cannot infringe upon other residents’ rights, the right to visitation cannot be improperly infringed. In other words, as long as the resident’s right to visitation doesn’t impact another resident’s rights (such as the rights of a roommate), then a nursing home resident must be permitted to have the visitors he wants when he wants to visit with them.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is the federal government agency that oversee the administration of nursing facilities. During the pandemic, CMS permitted nursing facilities to restrict residents’ right to visitation for purposes of public health; however, now that we have vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and, soon, antiviral pills—CMS has issued guidance requiring facilities to open to visitors. Essentially, we have sufficiently contained the virus to permit visitation.
Currently, 86% of nursing home residents and 74% of staff workers are vaccinated. CMS has issued a regulation compelling workers in facilities that receive payment from either Medicare or Medicaid to be vaccinated. Since most every nursing home in the United States receives funding from Medicare or Medicaid, this means that most staff members will soon be vaccinated.
While a nursing home can request that visitors call ahead to give the facility an opportunity to prepare for the visits, the facility can no longer require even a simple forewarning. Residents are legally permitted to have visitations when and where they choose in the facility. While facilities are encouraged to take safety precautions as the situation requires, the safety precautions cannot get in the way of the resident’s legal right to visitation.
At this time, we are all familiar with the public safety precautions that help prevent the spread of COVID. Since long-term care facilities are full of elderly and disabled vulnerable people at heightened risk of having significant issues from COVID, any visitor should be on his guard. Masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing/washing are all strongly encouraged. Outside visits, when possible, are preferred over inside visits. Certain recommendations concerning roommates and exposing the roommate to contact with visitors are made in the CMS guidance depending on whether or not the roommate and the visitors are vaccinated or unvaccinated.
Personally, I believe the time has come to open nursing homes up to visitors. My father resides in a nursing home, so I can speak with firsthand knowledge of the isolation that COVID has reaped on nursing home residents. But visitors need to be extra careful when visiting a family member. My father, for instance, had four roommates who died from COVID so the risks are real.