AUSTIN — The state will allow family members back inside nursing homes for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed the facilities to visitors six months ago, officials announced Thursday.
Nursing homes can choose whether to open their doors to certain visitors starting Sept. 24. The state has not laid out all the rules yet, however, leaving facilities with many unanswered questions, industry leaders said.
“It’s going to mean the world to everybody involved,” said Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which represents senior care facilities in the state. “We just have to work towards how we get there.”
The state began allowing outdoor visits last month, but only about 60 nursing homes opted to have them, after meeting the state’s strict criteria, records show.
More nursing homes may choose to have indoor visits because the new rules change staff testing requirements and don’t force residents outside into what has been intense summer heat.
Texas families have lobbied for months to see loved ones whom they say are suffering from loneliness and other health problems in isolation.
Mary Nichols of Forney, who started a Facebook group to push for greater family access to nursing homes, cheered the change. But she is also eager to learn more about the rules.
“The thought of lifelong spouses finally being able to be together again, parents being able to touch their adult children,” said Nichols, who has not seen her own mother in six months. “It’s just all so overwhelming that people are going to be reunited in this way.”
Under the newly announced plan, nursing home residents will be able to choose two “essential caregivers” who can visit them wearing personal protective equipment, according to the Health and Human Services Commission. Physical contact is allowed, but only one of the resident’s essential caregivers can be in the facility at a time.
Before they visit, caregivers must be trained how to use personal protective equipment and have tested negative for COVID-19 in the past 14 days. The change also applies to residents at assisted living facilities and state-supported living centers, which house people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Assisted living facilities that meet certain criteria have already been allowed to restart indoor visitation, but the residents must be separated from their loved ones by plexiglass. The new rules allow nursing homes to also have these types of visits.
“Safely visiting with family and friends is the best medicine and most reassuring act we can provide for our most fragile Texans during these challenging times,” Texas Health and Human Services Commission Cecile Erwin Young said in a statement.
Nursing homes have been hit especially hard by the epidemic because residents live in close proximity and many have health problems that put them at higher risk of developing deadly cases of COVID-19.
The number of nursing home residents with the coronavirus has fallen statewide since a peak in early August, state data show. Still, as of mid-September, just over 2,000 residents and about 1,500 staff members were positive.
The decision about whether to allow visitors inside will likely depend on nursing homes’ resources, among other factors.
The facilities must provide the training to essential caregivers, and either approve or give them the personal protective equipment they wear, said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission.
Mann said state testing requirements are being replaced by federal ones, which took effect this month. The frequency of required testing depends on the virus’ spread in the surrounding community — meaning some nursing homes might have to test employees twice a week, while others do it once a week or once a month.