Families across the state have not been able to visit their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities since March because of restrictions that have been put in place by the state, along with some very strict guidelines that must be followed before visitation can resume.
“Visiting hasn’t been the easiest since we have to stay outside,” Joni Trivette said as she explained that visiting her grandmother, a resident at NHC in Sparta, has definitely been different this year. “We have to go, weather permitting, but we go at least once a week. We sit on the ‘porch’ as Granny calls it where she can watch the kids run and play in the yard through the doors. We usually put Granny on speaker phone so we can all hear her.”
Trivette said her family has spoiled their grandmother over the years by showering her with love and attention and always making sure she was involved in family events despite residing in a nursing home.
“Our family always made sure she made it to family gatherings or just Sunday dinners together,” she explained, adding that her grandmother understands why the family can’t visit or take her places right now, but she is definitely not happy about the situation. “It has been a huge adjustment for her, and us, having such strict visitation rules.”
“I only see mom through the window,” said Cheryl Webster, another White County resident, whose mother has been living in the nursing home for the past three years. “I occasionally bring a grandchild with me, but usually it’s just me. Sometimes it’s very upsetting to Mom, because she wants me to come in. It is heartbreaking.”
Guidelines for being able to visit a person living in a nursing home, include a lot of testing and scheduling on the part of both the facility and members of the public who wish to visit. Some of those guidelines include having to test every resident at least once and continued weekly testing for staff. Guidelines also include being able to maintain staff scheduling and the availability of Personal Protection Equipment without resorting to crisis levels as well having a COVID-19 response plan. In addition, the facility has to prove that they have had no new positive COVID-19 cases among staff or residents in the past 28 days. Other guidelines have to do with where the visitations can take place and provide options such as outdoors, patient rooms, and even visitation booths.
Not all of the responsibility falls on the facility. There are specific guidelines for visitors who will be allowed in to see their loved ones when the time arrives, including documentation of a negative COVID-19 test result within the 72 hours before visiting. Other restrictions will include calling ahead to schedule visitation and limiting the number of visitors for each resident as well as symptom screening and temperature checks upon entering the facility and wearing the required mask during the entirety of the visit.
“We certainly understand how difficult these restrictions are on residents of these facilities and their families,” Shelley Walker, Tennessee Department of Health’s director of communications and media relations, said. “[We] continue working to balance their needs for connection with loved ones with the need to protect this very vulnerable population from illness.”
While most people, like Webster, are willing to do the things necessary to be able to visit family members, and while nursing homes across the state, including the two in White County, have completed the testing of all residents and staff as mandated by the governor earlier this summer, and while response plans have been in place for months, there is still a factor that is keeping residents and family members apart.
“[It] include[s] having a stable burden of COVID-19 in the community that is less than or equal to an average of 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days,” Walker said. “White County, along with most other counties in the state, remains above that threshold at this time.”
According to these guidelines, White County, which has a residence total listed at 27,107, would have to have average no more than 2.7 new cases of COVID-19 over a 14-day period. It is important to note that this average comes from the reported new cases, not the active cases, within a county. According to the state’s website, White County’s current 14-day average is 13.64, well above the required threshold for opening the nursing homes for visitation.
While families are eagerly waiting until they can visit their loved ones, it has definitely been both an emotional and frustrating year as there is nothing they can do but wait some more.
“Her birthday is next week,” Webster said, talking about how she wants very much to spend time with her mother. “And I’m so sad that I can’t spend it with her.”
As for Trivette’s family, she said she doesn’t want the youngest children to think that these times are normal. She is eager for things to change.
“We miss being able to hug her, and it’s heartbreaking for our younger kids to think it’s normal to visit their Great-Granny through a glass door,” she said, and then added that she is also concerned for her grandmother’s emotional health. “We pray daily that soon we will get to hug her and that she is able to just keep her spirits up.”
Information on each county’s average number of cases per day, and whether they fall above or below that threshold, can be found at https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data/clusters-in-long-term-care-facilities.html