In-person visits can ease anxiety, improve morale and emotional wellbeing and the presence of family can also put an extra set of eyes on a patient’s needs, according to experts.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal program that provides health coverage through programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Health Insurance Marketplace, recommended people to wear masks and get temperature checks but the doors should remain open to visitors.
Some say that’s flirting with danger, but others say the toll from not allowing people to visit their loved once created its own set of problems, creating anxiety, fear and depression among both residents and family members.
In the height of the pandemic, relatives and friends were restricted to seeing their loved ones during video chats, window visits, talk by phone and, later, allowed outdoor in-person visits.
The new variant - BA.5 - is more contagious and stealth, skillfully evading individual immunity from past infections or protection from vaccines.
“The pandemic is not over,” said Ginny Helms, president of LeadingAge Georgia, an association that supports the not-for-profit and mission-driven organization that provide housing and services for seniors. However, “the good news is that vaccines and boosters have been effective so now most cases are mild and our elders are not at risk like they were. It was so scary.”
“This is just going to be part of our lives,” said Beth Laxton, executive director of the Sadie G. Mays Health & Rehabilitation Center in northwest Atlanta, where two residents were diagnosed with COVID last week. “We just have to take precautions... and get vaccinated.”
Since Jan. 1, more than 114,600 people ages 65 and above have contracted the virus in Georgia, according to the state department of public health.
For the week ending July 17, the number of COVID cases in nursing homes nationwide reached 11,145, according to the CDC.
Officials at Sadie G. Mays said all staffers are fully vaccinated with two shots and most have at least one booster and are encouraged to get the second. Staffers and visitors must wear masks and temperature checks are taken at the door.
There is also more frequent testing of staffers and residents.
If a visitor has COVID they are asked to come back when they are not positive.
Additionally, nearly all its residents in the 206-bed facility are vaccinated with 10 declining to do so.
Helms said the state and skilled nursing facilities have implemented infection control protocols and that ongoing training that will not only help them respond to future coronavirus outbreaks but “probably help with cases of the flu” in the fall.
“When the pandemic hit no one had ever seen anything like this. We started at ground zero,” she said. “Everyone rose up and learned.”
She said more needs to be done and would like to see funds available to have more single-bed room rather that two people sharing a room, which she thinks could cut down on transmissions.
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Healthcare Safety Network , as of July 3, the percentage of staff fully vaccinated in Georgia is 91.9% and residents fully vaccinated is 86.7%. Nursing homes are mandated to report this information.
Before her older brother died earlier this year, June Bell Blackmon remembers what it was like when the rehab and long-term care facility where her older brother lived after a debilitating stroke began limiting or stopping visits in 2020.
Before the pandemic, she and other family members brought food . They took him for long car rides and to the movies. They made sure he was clean.
The outings and being around family helped brighten his mood and hers as well.
Then the first big wave of COVID infections hit.
The facility went on lockdown and it was “horrific,” said Blackmon, a retired radiation therapist. “You knew the care was going to be good if you visited. In nursing homes you have to visit.”
The facility, like many nursing homes and long-term care facilities, had staffing issues. Several patients contracted COVID. At the time there were no vaccines. Even visits and activities between residents were stopped.
She could only talk with him by phone and on Facetime but soon that stopped as well.
He was depressed,” she said. “Not even seeing people there, I think, he sort of gave up.”
He died earlier this year from non-COVID related causes.