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By Ina Jaffe, NPR, September 17 2020

Nursing Homes Given Federal Go-Ahead To Allow More Visitors
Larry Yarbroff visits his wife Mary at Chaparral House in Berkeley, Calif. in July. California health authorities had allowed some visits to resume, and now federal regulators are doing the same, with measures to try to block the spread of the coronavirus.
Jeff Chiu/AP

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulate nursing facilities, are lifting the ban on visitors, effective immediately. CMS imposed the restriction in March in an effort to control outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Advocates for nursing home residents and family organizations have been clamoring for a repeal, noting the many residents who have suffered anxiety or depression, as well as physical or mental decline since the ban was imposed. The issue was also raised in the report of the Coronavirus Commission for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes, which became public on Wednesday.

Now, all nursing homes can allow outdoor visits with social distancing, as a few states have recently allowed. And most nursing homes can allow indoor visits as long as there have been no new COVID-19 infections in the past 2 weeks and the infection rate in the surrounding county is no more than 10%. But CMS recommends that nursing homes limit how many visitors a resident can have at one time, as well as limiting the number of visitors that can be in the facility at once.

A nursing facility that fails to allow visitation without a valid medical reason can suffer sanctions.

Also, nursing home residents can once again participate in social activities and communal dining, as long as there is social distancing and residents wear masks.

Since March, family members have only been allowed to visit their loved ones for so-called compassionate care. This was interpreted strictly by many nursing homes to mean end of life situations. The new guidance from CMS expands the criteria to include residents who were living with their family before admission to the nursing home and are now struggling with the change in environment, residents who need family members to provide encouragement with eating or drinking, and residents experiencing emotional distress or crying more frequently. The guidance says this should not be regarded as an exhaustive list.

The fines that the government collects for nursing home violations can now be used for facilities to buy technology that aids in family communication, as well as plastic partitions, tents, or other equipment that can help prevent transmission of the virus.

The rules do not apply only to the nursing homes. CMS states that visitors who don’t follow infection prevention routines such as wearing a mask, should not be permitted to visit or should be asked to leave.