New York state finally gave nursing homes permission to allow visitation July 15, but more than two weeks later, the overwhelming majority of nursing homes remain closed off to visitors. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki examines the slow reopening, which some blame on nursing homes not planning ahead and others blame on what they say are overly strict state guidelines.
Mary Jane Meinzer’s children visit her at Schofield Residence nursing home as much as possible in an effort to keep her mind sharp, said Meinzer’s daughter, Anne Kuczkowski.
So when New York state banned visitors from nursing homes in March, Kuczkowski was worried about even more than just the novel coronavirus.
“She's very smart and she has a great memory, but sitting in here, I'm afraid that that'll be lost,” she said.
On Monday, Kuczkowski was finally able to visit her 91-year-old mom for the first time since the ban. Afterward, she felt relieved.
“I was so happy to see that she seemed the same to me,” said Kuczkowski, who was joined at the visit by her sister, Mary Lou Plesac.
More than 130 visitors have come to Schofield Residence since it reopened for visitors July 20. They have to have their temperature checked, wear masks and socially distance from the residents, with no physical contact allowed.
Schofield Residence, a 120-bed facility in Kenmore, is eligible for visits under state guidelines because none of its residents or staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in at least 28 days. In fact, Schofield Care President and CEO Randy Gerlach said it hasn’t had a single resident test positive during the entire pandemic; federal data on this only goes back to late May.
While allowing visitors could perhaps jeopardize that, Gerlach said there was no hesitation to reopen.
“A nursing home is intimidating enough for patients and families, and you don't want people to feel like they're jailed or they lose their ability to do what they want to do,” he said. “And our job is to try and create the most secure environment and safe environment for this pandemic.”
But Schofield Residence is something of an outlier.
Of New York’s 613 total nursing homes, just 110 are currently open to visitors, according to the state Department of Health. That’s fewer than 20%.
While up to half of nursing homes are simply ineligible to open due to a COVID-19 case in the last 28 days, the Department of Health said about a third of all nursing homes, some 200 facilities, are eligible to open yet haven’t submitted visitation plans to the state.
When asked if and how many of these facilities are in Western New York, a Department of Health spokesperson said that information was unavailable.
Lindsay Heckler said nursing homes are “failing their residents” by not allowing visitors even though they are eligible to.
Heckler, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice, a Buffalo nonprofit legal agency, said while she understands the Department of Health only gave nursing homes a five-day notice of the July 15 reopening, the facilities should have been preparing for this since the start of the pandemic.
“People haven't seen their loved ones in four months. Facilities should have been planning for reopening during that time,” Heckler said. “There's no excuse.”
Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, said “every nursing home wants to reopen” and doubts the state’s claim that 200 nursing homes are eligible to open but haven’t submitted visitation plans.
Hanse said the real issue is the state’s 28-day COVID-free stipulation, which is based on federal government guidance. In a recent poll of 300 NYSHFA nursing homes and assisted living facilities, 75% said they were unable to reopen due to the 28-day rule.
“Let’s say you have maybe 350 residents. One of those (residents) tests positive, and every family’s precluded,” he said. “That is too rigid a policy to have in place.”
Hanse said NYSHFA has officially asked the state to soften the threshold to just 14 days.
“That would align with the 14-day quarantine period for any infected staff. It just makes sense,” he said. “Looking at our numbers, it would dramatically open up nursing homes to visitation.”
In some cases, the 28-day rule has forced open nursing homes to reclose.
Albert Pautler was scheduled to visit his wife Marilyn at the Elderwood nursing home in Lancaster on July 22, but then received a call that a resident had tested positive at the facility.
He said now waiting at least another 28 days to see his wife is even more difficult than when there was no end in sight to the visitor ban.
“Because we thought we got over the hard issue,” he explained. “Waiting again now 28 days, just holding your breath, I think my family would agree is more difficult.”
Elderwood Vice President for Marketing and Communications Chuck Hayes said visitors were likely not the cause of the re-emergence of COVID-19 at the Lancaster location, as the facility had only been reopened for two days when the resident tested positive; the virus’ median incubation period is five days.
Five of the Elderwood’s eight Western New York nursing homes and six of its seven assisted living facilities are currently open to visitors, according to Hayes. As of the end of last week, they’ve allowed in a total of 522 visitors.
“We try to be very upfront with all of our families in letting them know that while visitation is reinstated on a limited basis, that is subject to two key factors, and the biggest is whether or not there is a COVID-19 case on the campus,” Hayes said. “If cases of coronavirus spike in the community, we may need to limit visitation again for all of our facilities, and that would be the same for every nursing home. So we're keeping an eye on guidance from the state and the numbers in the community, as well as monitoring our home.”
Heckler also feels that the state could soften the 28-day rule, like by allowing nursing homes with active cases to still hold outdoor visitation. She plans to address the state’s slow nursing home reopening in her written testimony to the state Legislature, which will hold hearings Monday and Aug. 10 on the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes.
“Our legislature, they know this is an issue. So I would hope they will ask those difficult questions of our nursing home operators who are asked to testify, and also hopefully the Department of Health,” Heckler said.
For Kuczkowski and Plesac, they said they just feel fortunate they can visit their mom at Schofield Residence for now.
“One day at a time,” Kuczkowski said.
“Because if they get a case then it’s over,” Plesac added.