State DOH outlines guidelines for limited visitation to resume at nursing homes

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities that have been without COVID-19 for at least 28 days can resume limited visitation, according to the state Department of Health.

The facilities have been closed to visitors since March when the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across New York.

Local nursing homes remain a few weeks away from potentially reaching that benchmark, meaning visitation in its restricted form is unlikely to begin until late this month or August at the earliest.

Facilities that reach the threshold set by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services can resume visitation under strict guidelines and only 10% of the residents can be allowed visitors at any time. In a 100-bed facility, for example, no more than 10 residents can have visitors per day in order to maintain social distancing and ensure safe compliance, according to the DOH.

Residents will be allowed two visitors at a time and the visitors must undergo temperature checks, wear face coverings and follow social distancing guidelines. At least one of the two visitors must be 18 or older.

Once visiting resumes, any positive test among employees or residents will reset the clock on the 28 days.

All facilities accepting visitors will be required to send their visitation plan to the DOH.

Adjustments to the visitation policy will be made “as appropriate based on facts and data following this initial phase to ensure the health and safety of residents, staff and visitors,” according to the DOH.

Nursing home residents have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and have accounted for about 25% of the statewide fatalities. A recently released DOH report said the spread of COVID-19 at nursing homes began with asymptomatic staff members and visitors. Republicans have called the report “phony” and claim Gov. Andrew Cuomo is ducking blame for the nursing home fatalities, which they link to his March directive for nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals.

“With the knowledge we now have about how COVID-19 came into nursing homes — mainly through asymptomatic staff and visitors through no fault of their own — it is critical that as we resume visitations to these facilities we do it in a smart and cautious way to ensure the health and safety of residents and staff,” said state health commissioner Howard Zucker, M.D. 

A supplemental survey of nursing homes first published in June outlines each facility in the state and breaks down by month how many employees tested positive for COVID-19 and how many were suspected to have the virus.

The facilities are required to continue testing staff members through Aug. 8.

In Riverhead Town, Acadia Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation reported its first positive COVID-19 employee in March. Another seven tested positive in April, 25 in May and 11 in June (through June 25). Another 31 employees were suspected to have COVID-19 from March through May.

Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Skilled Nursing Facility reported 10 positive cases in March, 10 in April and seven in May. No additional cases were reported in June. There were two employees who were suspected to have COVID-19 from March through May.

In Southold Town, San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport reported its first employee with COVID-19 in May with seven total employees. Another three tested positive in June.

Peconic Landing in Greenport reported 16 COVID-19 cases among employees in March. There were 12 in April and zero in May. An additional 14 employees were suspected of having COVID-19.

In a letter to residents and family members published July 11, San Simeon’s executive director, Steve Smyth, said visitation will not resume before July 29 due to a positive COVID-19 test of an employee on July 1. Mr. Smyth said no residents have tested positive since the pandemic began. 

He said more specific guidelines on visitation will be provided as San Simeon gets closer to the date it can reopen visitation. He referred to the DOH’s announcement last week as “welcome news” but added that “the guidance is quite strict and many factors must be met to allow visitation to commence.”

Peconic Landing said they are finalizing visitation policies that will be submitted to the DOH. A health center team member tested positive for COVID-19 on July 5, so the earliest visitation could resume is the beginning of August.

Acadia administrator Mary Ann Mangels said one resident at the facility has continued to test positive, so the 28-day countdown has yet to start. Another staff member who does not treat patients is also currently positive, she said.

She said while they won’t be resuming visitation in the immediate future, the facility is still offering window visits and Skype and FaceTime calls.

“We empathize, but our hands our tied,” she said. “We have to abide by the regulatory requirements.”

She said Acadia would be open to creating outdoor space for visitation if DOH allows it.

Local hospitals have resumed limited visitation. Peconic Bay Medical Center allows limited visitation from 1 to 5 p.m. Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital also allows limited visitation, from 2 to 5 p.m.