Sandra Monahan has not seen her 93-year-old mother in person since the beginning of March. While other New Yorkers have been reuniting with family in the months after the end of the statewide COVID-19 lockdown, Monahan has not been so lucky.
Her mother, who she visited every day before the pandemic, is isolated in a nursing home in a Rochester suburb. Once upbeat and highly alert, she is now losing weight and experiencing depression.
Monahan has not been able to see her because the nursing home, in the town of Pittsford, never went 28 full days without a coronavirus case from a resident or staff member.
“I’ll wear a hazmat suit, I don’t care,” Monahan said, anguish rising in her voice. “I feel like I’m at a loss. I don’t know what else to do.”
Monahan is part of a small but increasingly vocal number of New Yorkers who are desperate to see their friends and family in nursing homes again. They have formed an organization, NY Families for Visitation Now, to lobby Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Health Department to relax guidelines to allow for far more frequent visits.
Their argument is simple: while coronavirus still poses a threat, sustained isolation worsens health risks like dementia and failure to thrive. The pandemic has led to a surge in Alzheimer’s deaths nationwide.
Monica Ryser, a member of the organization, said her 97-year-old mother’s dementia has worsened since March, her appearance and ability to speak drastically declining in their Zoom calls.
“She thinks we’ve abandoned her,” said Ryser, whose mother lives in a Rochester nursing home. “I don’t want my mother to die, to be honest.”
On Tuesday, the families of nursing home residents won a concession. The Department of Health announced the 28-day period, instituted in July, would be reduced to 14 days and socially-distanced visits would be allowed.
The announcement follows a change in DOH policy that expanded visitation policies for pediatric nursing homes and adult care facilities.
“DOH understands how painful it is for families to not see their loved ones, and the challenges facilities face as they work to protect residents from the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 while trying to reopen to outside visitors,” said Jeffrey Hammond, a Department of Health spokesman. “The number of nursing homes that are eligible to reopen to visitors, and the number that have taken the next steps, shows they are being smart and cautious.”
Visitors would have to present a negative coronavirus test within seven days of entering the nursing home. The number of visitors to the nursing home must not exceed 10 percent of the resident population at any time and only two visitors will be allowed per resident at a given time.
Visitors must undergo temperature checks and wear face coverings. Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from making visits.
Nursing homes allowing visitors would be required to send their visitation plan to DOH and show that they are following the rules.
The problem, however, is that some family members of nursing home residents had served, pre-pandemic, as de facto caregivers, helping to feed, dress, and groom them. Touch will still not be permitted.
Even with protective gear, negative coronavirus tests, and temperature checks, visitors won’t be granted the same privileges as staff. Some nursing homes may still not be able to meet the two-week coronavirus-free threshold.
In neighboring states, visitation restrictions for nursing homes have been less strict for a longer period of time.
Pennsylvania announced at the end of June nursing home could accept visitors after a 14-day period of no positive cases. New Jersey expanded its visitation policy for indoor visits in early August. Without a 28-day restriction, Connecticut began allowing socially distanced visits in June.
None of these states have experienced an apparent spike in nursing home cases or deaths related to the relaxing of visitation rules so far.
“Everyone except the Health Department believes strongly that the visiting regulations are imposing serious harm on nursing home residents,” said Assembly Richard Gottfried, the chairman of the Health Committee. “It doesn’t just make them feel bad. It endangers their health because being without visitors can impair your health. When you’re in a nursing home, having family come to visit makes the staff take better care of the resident and enables the family to see problems that need taking care of.”
Cuomo does have reasons for proceeding with caution. More than 6,600 New Yorkers died in nursing homes from COVID-19, the most in the nation, though the numbers could be far higher due to the unorthodox way New York counts nursing home deaths.
In March and April, nursing homes across the state were epicenters for the pandemic, as staff and vulnerable residents were rapidly infected. Some nursing homes lacked protective equipment and others were faulted for their mismanagement in the early days of the crisis.
Cuomo has drawn criticism for his March directive, later reversed in May, that forced nursing homes to readmit residents with coronavirus who were discharged from hospitals but may have still been recovering. His administration argued the policy was put in place because of fears that local hospitals wouldn’t have the capacity to handle these patients.
Meanwhile, families and advocates are hoping their loved ones, having survived the worst of the pandemic, can stay alive and active in isolation, even with visitation restrictions still in place.
“I feel helpless for my mother,” Monahan said. “It breaks my heart.”