Visitation returns to nursing homes with new set of challenges and more potentially on the way

Through plexiglass barriers and windows, tearful parking-lot reunions, blown kisses and families spaced out across long tables, visitation at many area nursing homes resumed last week after a more than six-month shutdown.

At San Simeon in Greenport, visitation began Aug. 27 in an outdoor area with limitations in place. According to Kelly Moteiro, director of nursing at the Greenport facility, there are four 45-minute visiting sessions daily, with a maximum of two visitors allowed per resident. The visits take place on an outdoor patio and the rules are clear: no personal contact is allowed.

“They can’t touch,” Ms. Moteiro said in an interview Thursday, acknowledging that it’s still a challenge for families. “But it’s been so nice to see.”

In the days since visitation resumed, Ms. Moteiro said families have traveled great distances, brought pets to say hello and complied with guidelines that require health screenings and face masks to enter. “It’s been a long time that everyone’s been held up here, not seeing their family,” aside from window visits or FaceTime calls, she explained.

For the better part of six months, Pat Snyder of Riverhead spent her Saturdays driving out to deliver a bagel, a handwritten letter and some flowers from her garden to her 86-year-old mother at the facility.

“We stayed connected that way, but the personal is always better,” Ms. Snyder said, adding that she had a “lovely” visit last week, despite navigating the challenges of hearing each other through six feet, a mask and background noise. 

The pandemic, she said, has been especially hard for her mom’s mental health. “Their social activities are limited and there were just so many limitations,” Ms. Snyder said. “It’s so sad when you can’t give your mom a hug or a kiss. I think that’s what people want, is human touch.”

Under state guidelines, nursing homes were able to open their doors after meeting a 28-day benchmark of no COVID-19 cases among staff members or residents.

Ms. Moteiro said while several staff members have tested positive and recovered, there were no cases reported among residents at San Simeon.

A resident works on art at San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport in July. (Credit: San Simeon by the Sound)

In the event a staff member or resident tests positive at any facility, state requirements mandate that visitation is shut down again for at least 28 days.

That’s the current situation at the Acadia Center in Riverhead, where visitation restarted last Wednesday but abruptly came to a halt after two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a letter to families Monday, administrator Mary Ann Mangels said the two employees are not nurses and work in separate departments. “It should be noted that they both actually had COVID a few months ago,” Ms. Mangels wrote, but they recently tested positive again and must quarantine.

Families who had upcoming visits planned will have to reschedule to when visitation resumes in at least 28 days, officials at the facility said.

Statewide, the New York State Health Facilities Association and NYS center for Assisted Living are calling on state officials to reduce the waiting period from 28 to 14 days to align with Department of Health guidelines for staff members.

“All counties in New York are currently in phase four and the need for in-person visitation has never been greater. In light of the fact that the vast majority of long-term care residents have not seen their loved ones in-person since early March and New York’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests has been below 1 percent for 19 straight days, there has never been a more opportune time to revise the State’s visitation restrictions,” CEO Stephen Hanse wrote in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo dated Aug. 28.

Peconic Landing CEO and president Bob Syron at an event in March. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Peconic Landing CEO Bob Syron agreed that the 28-day rule is an issue.

“Everyone is battling loneliness,” he said in an interview Friday. “As soon as we can get people in to visit their loved ones safely, we should be able to do that.”

Visitation was able to continue at Peconic Landing’s independent facility toward the end of May and started again at the assisted living and skilled nursing facility on Monday, Aug. 31.

All visitors are temperature screened and must answer a questionnaire at Brecknock Hall, Mr. Syron said, including all staff and vendors working at the campus.

He anticipates being able to further lift restrictions on the independent living side as the infection rate remains below 1% on Long Island. 

The facility’s pool opened this week, indicating another sign of a return to normal living, and other amenities like the gym and art studio may soon follow, Mr. Syron said.

Peconic Landing chief operating officer Greg Garrett added that the facility is now in a much better position to conduct testing on-site.

“We know much more about this virus and how to protect our individuals,” he said, adding that staff members are tested weekly with additional support from Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital.

Mr. Garrett also said they are awaiting supplies to be able to conduct on-site rapid testing, which can show results in less than an hour on their campus. “We’ll have the ability to identify where this virus may be if we do see some sort of outbreak,” he said.

Mr. Syron said schools reopening is “absolutely a concern” among providers. “Children may bring the virus home to their parents, who may work in our facilities,” he said, which could suspend visitation.

In the meantime, appointments are required for visits to all areas of the Peconic Landing complex so staff can manage how many visitors are entering the facility.

To date, officials say they’ve welcomed over 1,300 visitors to the residential community since May and 20 across the assisted living and nursing home since Monday.

Residents are limited to four guests per day to limit exposure. “We understand and see every day how important it is to see their loved ones,” Mr. Syron said. “But one person can affect the entire community and we have to ensure safety and that we do this right.”