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Kupuna advocates overjoyed after federal guidelines OK nursing home visits

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 5:45 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2021 at 8:27 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just before the holidays, the federal government released new guidelines saying visits must be allowed for all nursing home residents.

It’s a major step for families and residents living for a year and half with restrictions.

Zoom chats, drive-thru celebrations, and lockdowns during outbreaks were common during the pandemic.

But now, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency which oversees Hawaii’s nearly 50 nursing homes, said “visitation is now allowed for all residents at all times.”

“This is going to be a lot of joy because everybody wants to be with family,” said John McDermott, Hawaii State Long-Term Care Ombudsman.

The changes come after high vaccination rates amongst staff and residents as well as growing concern over residents suffering from isolation.

“We are able to start bringing families back in and really seeing if we can somehow reverse those effects — the social isolation that it’s done to our residents,” said Suzie Schulberg, CEO of Arcadia Family of Companies.

“While outdoor visitation is still preferred, facilities are now able to allow indoor visitation at all times based on the discretion of the resident, which is huge,” she added.

Schulberg said the new guidelines mean nursing homes cannot require that visitors be vaccinated.

“We can ask what their vaccination status is, but we cannot prevent them from coming into the facility if they are not vaccinated,” she said.

CMS said in areas of low to moderate transmission, “if the resident and all their visitor(s) are fully vaccinated and the resident is not moderately or severely immunocompromised, they may choose not to wear face coverings or masks and to have physical contact.”

“There’s really no need to go through all these precautions indefinitely. It’s almost been two years of hell for these residents,” said McDermott.

“We’ve also had really heartache stories where someone died in the facility and family hadn’t seen them in over a year,” he added.

The state Health Department clarified that despite federal guidelines, Hawaii still has an indoor mask mandate.

“Visitors are required to wear masks to protect themselves, the people they are visiting, other residents who may or may not be vaccinated, and those who work in the facility,” said Brooks Baehr, DOH spokesman in an email.

“Every visit must occur in a manner that does not place other residents at risk,” he added.

The federal guidelines said “while it is safer for visitors not to enter the facility during an outbreak investigation, visitors must still be allowed in the facility.”

“It could be just one person and we are able to isolate, facilities are able to isolate in their COVID unit and that way it’s not going to have a negative impact on the rest of the community,” said Schulberg.

She cautions the pandemic is not over and with cases rising on the mainland, COVID protocols still need to be in place.

“It’s a balance,” she said.

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