For the first time since September, federal health officials are recommending that nursing home residents be allowed to see visitors in person.
But in Florida, where visitation has been allowed for months, the new federal guidelines will only make slight changes to the state’s current procedures, established to protect vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities.
In the past year, 10,727 residents at Florida’s long-term care facilities have died from complications of COVID-19, approximately one third of total deaths in Florida.
An emergency order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in October allowed long-term care facilities to open their doors for visitors under certain requirements, including temperature checks, social distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment for all visitors.
The federal guidelines, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, call for similar coronavirus infection prevention protocols outlined in Florida’s visitation order.
“The CMS guidance that came out is very similar to what we are already doing here in our state,” said Kristen Knapp, senior director of communications and strategy for the Florida Health Care Association. “There are some things that we are trying to get clarification on, because there are a few discrepancies.”
Knapp said there is one thing federal guidelines will influence: the ability for residents and visitors to touch.
The state order did not outline protocol for touching and originally required stringent social distancing. When visitation resumed in September, some family members of nursing home residents filed to become “essential caregivers” in order to share physical touch with their loved ones.
The new federal guidelines state that if a resident is fully vaccinated, they can choose to have close contact — including touch — with visitors.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, your residents and your visitors can hug, and that’s huge,” Knapp said. “For someone who has a husband or a wife in a facility, a mom or a dad, being able to hold their hand and wrap your arms around them is significant.”
The other main discrepancy between the state and federal guidelines pertains to how nursing homes react in the instance of an outbreak of COVID-19. An outbreak exists when a new case of the virus occurs among residents or staff.
Florida’s order stipulates that if an outbreak were to occur, visitation would be closed off for the entire facility.
The federal guidelines say that visitation can still occur when there is an outbreak, if there is evidence that the transmission of COVID-19 is “contained to a single area of the facility.”
“Our facilities have learned how to manage residents with the virus by setting up COVID isolation wings or dedicated areas so you’re not having cross contamination,” Knapp said. “Now if you have an outbreak, you only have to shut down that particular wing versus the whole building, and I think that’s a benefit.”
The expanded visitation guidelines come as Florida nursing homes experience a decline in COVID-19 cases.
Out of 137,367 residents in Florida’s long-term care facilities, 400 are now being treated for coronavirus. That’s 3,251 fewer than the peak in January.