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Lawmakers urge NY to lift limits on nursing home visits

July 15, 2021 Marina Villeneuve, Associated Press
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Lawmakers are demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo lift remaining restrictions for visits at nursing homes, according to a letter sent by two dozen Democratic lawmakers to the governor this week.

New York lifted many restrictions on nursing home visits this spring in light of federal guidance that, in part, cleared the way for loved ones to hug residents if both are vaccinated.

Nursing homes in New York are urged to provide outdoor visits as well as indoor visits, though visits can still be curtailed once residents or staff test positive. Residents also can receive “compassionate care” visits that aren’t subject to restrictions for a variety of scenarios, including residents who are in end-of-life care.

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But some nursing homes in New York are still only allowing one or two visitors at a time to visit loved ones for as little as 30 minutes once or twice a week, sometimes with hours limited to weekdays.

“In the year before vaccinations became available, our seniors endured loneliness and isolation that had very real impacts on their physical and mental health,” the lawmakers wrote in the July 12 letter to Cuomo. “Many still have not fully recovered. While the majority of New Yorkers have had the opportunity to resume a life of preCOVID-19 activity, seniors in many nursing homes have been excluded.”

Christina McComish, 59, of Valatie, said her 88-year-old mother has declined in the last year, and has struggled with isolation, dementia and hearing loss. McComish said it can take days to make appointments to see her mother for 30-minute long appointments at opposite ends of a dining table in the nursing home lobby.

She said she snuck a hug with her mother during their last visit, even though the nursing home discouraged it. McComish, who works as a creative arts therapist at another nearby nursing home, said it’s a struggle to know what visitation rights residents and family members have.

She said her mother’s nursing home has told her that compassionate care visits are only for “end-of-life” scenarios.

“She’s vaccinated, I’m vaccinated,” McComish said. “She’s just going to die in there, she’s just going to die alone.”

Sen. Rachel May, who pushed for a new law to allow limited visitation even in states of emergency, said she and other lawmakers are hearing from too many constituents who find it too difficult to visit loved ones at a time when New York has lifted the bulk of COVID-19 restrictions statewide as the state of emergency expired.

“Obviously states need to have control over out-of-control public health emergencies,” she said. “Barring that it seems to me that if your nursing home is your home you should have the right to visit your person and that should be pretty basic.”

New York’s Department of Health released updated visitation rules last week that said nursing homes can face citation and enforcement actions for restricting visitation without a “reasonable clinical or safety cause” under federal law.

But May said that guidance still gives nursing homes too much leeway.

The rules, for example, say that a nursing home’s visitation schedule should allow residents to receive visitors for their desired length of time.

But the state’s guidance also says that nursing homes should consider scheduling visits for a specific length of time to help ensure all residents can receive visitors while adhering to infection protocols, including providing six feet of social distancing.

It’s unclear whether nursing homes can be penalized in cases where visitation rules are too strict, and whether family members and loved ones have any recourse with the state if they think a nursing home isn’t following state and federal guidance. The Department of Health didn’t immediately respond Thursday to such questions from the Associated Press.

Nursing home residents, meanwhile, can seek help from the office of the State Long Term Care Ombudsman.

Meanwhile, New York U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney is pushing a federal bill to allow residents of group homes — including nursing homes — to have limited visits during public health emergencies, as long as infection protocols are followed.

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