Maryland relaxes nursing home visitations as state records no virus deaths for first time since March

In a news conference Thursday, Hogan said the state will commit an additional $6 million…

Maryland relaxes nursing home visitations as state records no virus deaths for first time since March

In a news conference Thursday, Hogan said the state will commit an additional $6 million to help nursing homes and assisted-living facilities pay for staff testing after some said they couldn’t afford the costs. He also said health officials are launching new guidelines to expand the use of rapid antigen tests, which could be used to screen visitors.

Doctors and public health experts discussed the new guidelines and “additional measured, data-driven steps” to move forward with reopening earlier this week during a state coronavirus recovery team meeting, Hogan said.

“This included steps to help our seniors in Maryland nursing homes return to some sort of normalcy,” he said.

The governor said that through a bipartisan interstate testing compact — which Hogan negotiated during the final days of his tenure as chair of the National Governors Association — the state has secured 250,000 rapid antigen tests that will be deployed at all of Maryland’s 227 nursing homes by next week.

Maryland has recorded 2,155 deaths in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and group homes since the pandemic began, making up more than half the state’s coronavirus fatalities. Those facilities have accounted for 15,798 reported cases in the state.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said that as of Thursday, 76 facilities in the state had active coronavirus cases, down from 130 on Aug. 5.

In Virginia and D.C., indoor visits remain limited to situations in which a facility resident is close to death. Outdoor visits with masks and social distancing are allowed.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nursing homes nationwide, issued guidance in mid-September encouraging facilities to allow visitors, including indoors, if they have not had a new infection in 14 days.

Allison Ciborowski, chief executive of LeadingAge Maryland, which represents 120 nonprofit operators of long-term-care facilities, said she is “eager to see residents and loved ones reunited,” adding that she has been asking for more flexibility from the state on visitation guidelines.

But she said families must understand that Hogan’s announcement does not mean business as usual, as strict physical distancing measures and mask-wearing policies will be in place during visits.

“In order for us to resume and continue indoor visits, it is so important that families understand that,” she said.

Hogan’s order prohibits indoor visitations if a jurisdiction’s coronavirus test positivity rate passes 10 percent, although every locality in the state is well below that mark.

Maryland also lifted restrictions Thursday on child-care providers. State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said facilities can begin to care for the number of children for which they are licensed.

“We have heard very clearly from many parents and providers who have written and called me, that we return to licensed capacity to meet the needs of working families and prevent the closure of child-care centers once it could be done safely,” Salmon said.

She said health officials did not see adverse effects when child-care programs increased capacity from 10 to 15 individuals per room. Under the new change, child-care centers can serve up to 20 3- and 4-year-olds in a room and up to 30 school-age children.

A Maryland jurisdiction also lifted restrictions Thursday, allowing expanded alcohol sales for some businesses if safety protocols are in place.

The Montgomery County Council voted to approve an executive order allowing food service establishments to serve alcohol later into the evening, lifting a restriction that was put in place near the start of the pandemic.

The order, approved on an ­8-to-1 vote, will allow establishments to serve alcohol between 10 p.m. and midnight if they have a staff member or contractor enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. Any business with a history of pandemic-related citations is ineligible for a permit.

Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) said the order offers a “reasonable set of guidelines that addresses the public health concerns while also acknowledging the economic impact.” Council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) applauded the county’s “science-based approach” in lifting restrictions.

The lone dissenting vote Thursday came from council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who suggested county leaders look at other “targeted openings,” such as allowing the return of small groups of Montgomery County Public Schools students.

“I know the restaurants are struggling right now,” he said. “But I’m just concerned that by taking this step, we’re accelerating down the path of reopening for certain services that really may not be our highest priority.”

More than a dozen businesses have applied for a permit to offer late-night alcohol sales, said Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Restaurants will also be allowed to erect tents without permits, although county employees will ensure that they have been properly installed.

The relaxed guidelines in the state come on the same day Maryland recorded its first 24-hour period since March 28 without a virus-related fatality. The rolling seven-day average of deaths has mostly held steady since mid-July, with the state this week averaging about seven deaths daily.

Hogan said the drop was a positive step in the state’s battle against the pandemic, but he urged Maryland residents to remain vigilant and to continue taking health precautions.

“This encouraging milestone is a tribute to the incredibly heroic efforts of our doctors, nurses, and health care workers on the front lines, and the courage and perseverance Marylanders have demonstrated in response to this unprecedented challenge,” he said in a statement.

Other virus-related metrics in Maryland on Thursday painted a mixed picture.

The state reported 785 new coronavirus cases — the highest in a single day since Sept. 12. The daily total was well above Maryland’s seven-day rolling average of new cases, which stood Thursday at 530.

It’s the fifth consecutive day that Maryland’s average number of cases has risen after dropping to 461 daily cases about a week ago. Meanwhile, the state’s coronavirus test positivity rate stands at 2.88 percent, which is a slight increase when compared with earlier in the week.

The District, Maryland and Virginia on Thursday reported 1,267 new infections and 21 additional deaths. Virginia had 450 new cases and 20 deaths, while D.C. had 32 new cases and one death. Both jurisdictions have seen a slight decline in caseloads in recent days.

The seven-day average of new cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia stands at 1,313, down from more than 2,000 about two months ago. Health experts have cautioned that numbers could rise as chillier weather causes people to shift activities indoors.

As economic fallout from the pandemic continued, Labor Department numbers released Thursday showed that 21,456 people in Maryland, Virginia and the District filed for unemployment benefits last week, up from 17,792 a week earlier. More than 1.5 million residents in the Washington region have sought jobless benefits since the start of the pandemic.