For the first time in nearly five months, visitors will be allowed in Texas nursing homes on a limited basis, state health officials announced Thursday evening, reversing a policy intended to keep the state’s most vulnerable populations safe from a pandemic that has proved especially deadly for older people.
Residents of Texas’ long-term care facilities have been separated from their family and friends for more than 140 days, since Gov. Greg Abbott shut down visitation in mid-March.
At long-term care facilities, some indoor visits will be permitted, provided there are plexiglass barriers, there are no active cases of the novel coronavirus among residents and there are no confirmed cases among staff in the last two weeks. Physical contact between residents and visitors will not be permitted, state officials said.
The restrictions are tighter on nursing facilities, which must test staff members weekly and can offer only outdoor visits.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation and we are constantly assessing what actions are necessary to keep residents and staff safe in these facilities,” said Phil Wilson, the acting executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services Commission. “By following these procedures and rules, facilities can more effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19 and help us achieve our shared goal of reuniting residents with their families and friends.”
The dramatic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across Texas in June and July led to another surge in long-term care facilities, with 57% of nursing homes still reporting at least one active case Thursday. Deaths in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities account for more than a third of Texas’ death toll.
Despite the need to protect a high-risk population, families and advocates have been urging the state to allow for limited visitation.
“Families are just desperate right now to be able to see their loved ones,” Alexa Schoeman, deputy state ombudsman in HHSC’s office of the long-term care ombudsman, said in an interview last week.
Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, called Thursday’s announcement “a great step forward.” In an interview last week, he said reconnecting families with their loved ones was “a priority” and that “it should be done as quickly as we can.”
Some Texas lawmakers had been agitating for a policy change for weeks. Last month, state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, along with dozens of other signatories, asked state health officials to loosen restrictions on visitations for patients with memory difficulties and mental disabilities.
“We will not stand to let these Texans fall through the cracks,” they wrote.