Texas long-term care facilities — even those with active COVID-19 cases — can allow visitors beginning Sept. 24, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday.
Eligible facilities include nursing homes and intermediate care centers that serve residents without COVID-19, but that also have an isolation wing reserved for those who test positive for the virus. Visitation will also be allowed at state supported living centers, which house residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Visitors previously were allowed only into long-term care facilities where there were no active cases of the virus among residents and no confirmed cases among staff members in the past two weeks, based on state guidelines released Aug. 6. And before that, all visitation was strictly banned beginning March 15.
“It is critical to the health of residents that we provide opportunities wherever possible for families to reunite, while continuing to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of disease,” said Cecile Erwin Young, head of the state Health and Human Services Commission. “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.”
Under the revised guidelines, residents of long-term care facilities can designate two “essential family caregivers” who will be allowed into a resident’s room. Caregivers are not required to maintain physical distancing, but only one person can visit at a time. Essential family caregivers will be trained on the proper use of protective gear and other infection control practices, according to state rules. They must also test negative for the virus within the previous two weeks.
Visitors not named as essential will still be allowed inside facilities, but will not be allowed to touch residents and must remain behind plexiglass barriers in an area of the home free from the coronavirus.
Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, have been among the hardest hit by the deadly novel coronavirus. In Texas, more than 4,200 people in those facilities have died since March, and more than 800 facilities reported at least one active case as of Wednesday.
Families and advocates have repeatedly urged state officials to ease limitations for visitors. Only a handful of facilities were able to reopen under the previous guidelines.
But nursing home reform advocates worry that relaxing visitation restrictions could lead to another spike in cases among an already vulnerable population. Nursing homes are chronically understaffed and have struggled to maintain an adequate supply of protective equipment and testing supplies during the pandemic.
Brian Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Families for Better Care, voiced particular concern with the requirement that visitors be tested within the past 14 days, which he called “the Grand Canyon of time.” He worried asymptomatic family members could unknowingly transmit the virus to residents. Instead, Lee said visitors should receive rapid COVID-19 tests at the facilities’ doors.
“They’re going to allow folks to potentially [flood] these facilities with the virus,” Lee told The Texas Tribune. “There’s a real possibility that the virus could invade these facilities and see outbreaks.”