DHEC releases new guidelines to allow nursing home visits in limited outdoor settings

DHEC releases new guidelines to allow nursing home visits in limited outdoor settings

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Long-term care facilities in South Carolina will soon allow visits with patients in outdoor settings.

Tuesday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) issued extensive guidelines for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to do this safely amid continuing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHEC officials spoke alongside Gov. Henry McMaster from the State House.

The guidelines are actually mandatory, with DHEC saying certain criteria must be met before visitation may begin. That means visitation will not open immediately, but only after requirements are met.

Requirements include:

  • Screening of residents for any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection with documentation is occurring at least daily and for staff at the start of each shift.
  • Facility has adequate staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Facility must provide their written plan for limited outdoor visitation to DHEC’s Healthcare Quality division.
  • There have been no cases among staff and residents identified in the facility within the last 14 days.
  • For a nursing home, testing must be occurring per CMS requirements before visitation may begin at the facility. Community residential care facilities (and intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities who are recommended to follow these guidelines) may begin visitations before testing is in place, but testing as described in the CMS requirements for nursing homes must be occurring within 30 days from when these Guidelines for Outdoor Visitation are issued.

Two visitors will be allowed per patient at one time, the guidelines say.

A visit is limited to 15 minutes, unless a person provides documentation of a negative COVID-19 test or positive antibody test -- which allows them to visit for up to one hour.

Visitors cannot have physical contact with patients and must remain social distanced, DHEC says. That means no hugging, kissing, holding hands, etc.

No visitors under the age of 12 are allowed, unless there are special family circumstances that are approved by the facility on a case-by-case basis.

Visitors will be required to wear a surgical face mask during their visit and be screened prior to seeing their loved one.

The governor supports the idea of allowing visitors at these health care facilities. He says he stopped visitation to save lives, calling it a “heartbreaking reality.”

But he says the time has come to allow families to see each other.

“It’s been frustrating for all of those who are worried about a parent, grandparent or their loved one’s wellbeing,” McMaster said. “We know that we have no policy or procedure that can eliminate all possibility of risk. We can’t do it. But the time has come -- based on what we’ve learned, what we’ve experienced -- to reunite our families members, loved ones and caregivers, safely, as best we can.”

Guidelines say there are specific situations that would force DHEC to suspend visits at a facility.

DHEC and the Department on Aging Ombudsman will monitor facilities. Read the guidelines in full below:

Visits at long-term care facilities have been restricted since March, when the governor issued an executive order stopping it. People could only have visitors in end-of-life situations on a case-by-case basis.

Over the summer, families of nursing home residents pushed for the restrictions to be loosened.

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Family members have said their loved ones are deteriorating more rapidly because they are so isolated.

The governor said he’s heard from many of these families and that’s why he says he’s pushed DHEC to issue these guidelines.

DHEC reports that since April 3, 1,011 patients and 18 staffers have died at long-term care facilities due to COVID-19.

Trish Mozdzierz, the daughter of an assisted living facility patient, said the announcement wasn’t what she was looking for.

“Frustrated, disappointed, I don’t know what they’ve spent the past week doing. The past six months doing, this offers no solutions. This is not a move forward,” she said.

Mozdzierz said she was hoping for accommodations for a caregiver, someone who could routinely visit and ensure their loved one is receiving the physical and emotional support needed.

“We’re not ‘visitors’ and that’s where the major disconnect comes from,” she said.

The niece of a nursing home resident, Robin Willoughby, said she is grateful for the announcement but concerned the guidelines will slow or undermine the process.

“My concern is that my facility will not allow, or may drag their feet in allowing the outside visits,” she said.

The final line of the guidelines does state indoor visitation guidelines will be forthcoming. The guidelines, however, state nursing homes are not required to allow visits.

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