Safely Reopening Nursing Homes And Assisted Living Communities

September 8, 2020

Scenes of nursing home residents connecting virtually with loved ones due to pandemic precautions are both a heartwarming display of the endurance of family spirit and a heartbreaking reminder of the ongoing reality we all continue to face. 

In response, long term caregivers have proudly served as temporary family members and have also become experts in setting up video phone calls. We know there is no replacement for families visiting their loved ones in person, and we want to resume visitations as quickly as possible. But the safety of those in our care must always be our top priority.

Long term care providers place tremendous value on in-person visitation. It is an integral part of the overall physical and mental health of our residents. But until a vaccine or therapeutic treatment becomes available, the virus remains a formidable threat. As nursing homes and assisted living communities consider resuming visitation, we must carefully weight the benefits against the risks.

As facilities, regulators and health officials contemplate how and when to resume in person visitation, decisions should be based on our understanding of the virus and the most effective approaches to mitigating its spread.

First, we must consider the degree of spread within local communities. Research shows that no level of precaution can fully protect residents and staff who are surrounded by densely packed, highly-infected communities. Knowing the rate of infection in our communities is a key component in keeping residents and staff safe.

After a significant decline in COVID-19 cases in nursing homes in June, the spike in cases in the Sun Belt manifested itself in long term care facilities. At the end of July, positive cases in nursing homes had reached an all-time high. Facilities where cases are growing in the surrounding communities should exercise caution in accepting visitors.

Second, we must evaluate each facility’s preparedness to respond to an outbreak. Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical to keeping staff and residents safe and COVID-free, but many nursing homes and assisted living communities still don’t have enough. Facilities must also be able to conduct widespread and ongoing testing if visitation is to resume. Testing is the first line of defense against the virus, yet it remains one of the biggest challenges. Not only are testing resources finite, but the cost to pay for them has imposed significant financial burdens on budgets.

Federal and state governments should help our nation’s caregivers and residents by giving them the tools they need to protect residents in their care. Temporary federal funding has helped with these costs, but it won’t be enough if the coronavirus continues to ravage the country for months to come.

Finally, reopening long term care facilities should allow providers the flexibility to engage collaboratively with residents and their families, ombudsmen and other stakeholders. This collaboration will enable facilities to have the flexibility that addresses social isolation, while reinforcing necessary steps for infection control.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living have been a constructive part of guiding leaders’ decisions since the first day coronavirus landed on America’s shores. We have supported ceasing visitation despite how hard it has been on families, due to the fact that the asymptomatic nature of the virus demanded it to save lives.

Reopening requires a delicate balance of observing the real-time data at the local level and preparing long term care facilities for what may be a prolonged fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic. We will continue to do whatever it takes to keep our residents and staff safe.

Nursing homes and assisted living communities have undoubtedly seen the most devastation from the virus. To avoid further tragedy, we must reopen our long term care facilities in a thoughtful and careful manner.

Mark Parkinson is the president and chief executive officer of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, and former governor of Kansas.

Originally published on LinkedIn.