HARRISBURG, Pa. — Though COVID-19 cases are dropping, it has been a challenge getting back inside long-term care facilities. Some providers are hesitant to lift protocols in order to limit virus exposure.
Most visitation at nursing homes is still limited to certain days, hours, and sometimes, only outdoors. FOX43 Reveals what senior care advocates are doing to help families concerned about their loved ones still isolated and alone.
For residents of long-term care facilities it feels like June 2020. A single COVID-19 case triggers a two-week lockdown inside nursing homes, despite high vaccination rates. Senior care advocates are hearing similar concerns from families across the country.
“Many residents have explained to us over this past year that they felt like prisoners, and while things are opening up and getting better for many of them, there are still too many that are experiencing that,” said Lori Smetanka, Executive Director for the Consumer Voice.
Pennsylvania’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program in the Department of Aging works to resolve issues on behalf of residents in long-term care settings. FOX43 Reveals that their office received 1,904 complaints so far this year.
Thirty percent of those complaints dealt with care issues, like personal hygiene needs not being met. Twenty-two percent raised concerns about the violation of residents’ rights.
“That also includes the right to visitors. This has been an ongoing issue since the pandemic closures occurred. We’ve gotten calls from family members where their mom doesn’t recognize them anymore. That’s tragic and that is traumatic,” said Kim Shetler, Data and Analytics Specialist in the Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman.
Many long-term care providers stop all visitation after one positive case of COVID-19, even in facilities that have had few outbreaks. Their reason? They want to keep it that way by suspending visitation to prevent the virus from racing virtually unchecked through the facility.
Long-term care providers that FOX43 Reveals spoke with point to indoor visitation guidelines from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as their reason for the lockdowns. The guidelines recommend outbreak testing is discontinued when testing identifies no new cases of COVID-19 infection among staff or residents for at least 14 days since the most recent positive result.
Despite a new outbreak within a facility, however, CMS guidelines also require compassionate care visits to continue in nursing homes and long-term care settings at all times.
“In some circumstances, I can honestly understand wholeheartedly that their intentions are good in that they want to keep that risk of community spread or spread within their facility down, but we’re at the point in time now where residents should be empowered to have some choices in the matter,” explained Shetler.
Examples of compassionate care visits:
• A resident, who was living with their family before recently being admitted to a nursing
home, is struggling with the change in environment and lack of physical family support.
• A resident who is grieving after a friend or family member recently passed away.
• A resident who needs cueing and encouragement with eating or drinking, previously
provided by family and/or caregiver(s), is experiencing weight loss or dehydration.
• A resident, who used to talk and interact with others, is experiencing emotional distress,
seldom speaking, or crying more frequently (when the resident had rarely cried in the
Advocates tell FOX43 Reveals that families should remind providers of this right.
“We encourage people to even take the guidance with them into the facility,” added Smetanka. “Take the paper with them and show the facility where it says they should be able to be working with the family.”
Every licensed long-term care facility in the state has a poster with the contact information for the local ombudsman. People can also contact the State’s Ombudsman Office by calling 717-783-8975.
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