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After long months, families growing restless with not seeing loved ones in nursing homes

Joplin Globe - 2/16/2021

Feb. 14—It's been 10 months since Nola Lasiter last kissed her mother, a resident living inside a Joplin nursing home, and her patience is wearing thin.

"I want to see her. I want to hug her. This is getting really old," the Webb City resident said last week. "Seeing her through a window isn't the same thing. I feel like (nursing home residents nationwide) are being held prisoner."

Lasiter isn't angry at the nursing homes or their staff. Her anger is directed at state and federal officials who have remained mostly quiet about when stringent safety rules separating senior residents from their loved ones will ease.

"My mom hasn't had her hair cut in over a year because I cut her hair," she said. She "is getting more and more depressed. I missed (her) 80th birthday. ... I watched it on video. I missed Thanksgiving and Christmas; I watched her open presents through a window. It's a year of her life that I'll never get back."

When the arrival of COVID-19 triggered a national emergency on March 13, seniors inside nursing homes were immediately quarantined, with all medically unnecessary visits suspended, based on government recommendations. Over time, visits were conducted between protective barriers — windows and doors, for instance — or by using online services such as Facebook Live and Zoom. Family and loved ones were only allowed inside during "compassionate care situations," according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Because the virus has been particularly deadly to those age 65 and older, this made sense. According to the AARP, the pandemic has killed more than 136,000 residents and staff of nursing homes in the United States. Nationwide, there are 1.3 million Americans living inside nursing homes.

Under Missouri's vaccination plan, nursing home residents were some of the first in the state to receive the vaccine. Health care workers from CVS and Walgreens, under contract from the federal government, visited nursing homes in January to begin inoculating residents against the coronavirus. A majority of nursing home patients who wanted it have already received the first of their two shots, with second shots taking place in several Joplin area facilities this week or next.

Loved ones with family members in nursing homes are praying this will signal an easing of restrictions. Or will it?

Vaccinations are key

State officials are still waiting for guidance from both CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

"There are still many questions unanswered regarding vaccinations that make infection control changes uncertain right now," she said in an email.

Any future rules regarding nursing home visitation changes would likely center on three priorities: that all residents inside be vaccinated, that all staff members working inside be vaccinated, and that visitors show proof of vaccinations or test negative for the coronavirus.

"Vaccinating health care personnel and residents is essential to helping prevent individuals (who may not be able to recover) from getting COVID-19," Cox said. "For long-term care facilities, vaccinations are vital to protecting health care capacity. Staff who are sick cannot work and provide the necessary care and services to residents to ensure their health and safety."

As long as people continue to wear masks, remain distanced from others, get their vaccinations and stay away from large gatherings, the public could soon be able to see their loved ones inside nursing homes, said Marda Sayles, administrator at Joplin Gardens.

"The infection rate has to be down on the outside of our building (in the community) before we can open back up inside," she said. "When everybody is complying and the infection rates go down and everybody's getting vaccinated, that frees it up more for us."

New coronavirus cases have fallen 21% in the past two weeks nationwide, which is great news, Sayles said. Locally, cases have fallen right alongside.

Should those downward trends continue, "we might see (nursing homes) going to indoor visits ... within the next month or so," Sayles said. "So yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are getting closer."

Vaccinations are key "for us to get back to normal," she said.

'So demoralizing'

A county's positivity rate "has to be below 10% for two weeks for restrictions to be relaxed, and this week (Jasper County's) rate was 10.4%, which is great because that rate has been over 20%," said Jeff Bell, administrator at St. Luke's Nursing Center in Carthage. "We're definitely headed in the right direction."

More than 560,000 Missouri residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 169,554 have received their second dose, according to state data.

"I don't think anyone ever anticipated we would be a year into this without any clear sign of where we are or where we're headed," Bell said. "We're grateful they pushed through the vaccines, but we're very much looking forward to the day when our residents can have close contact with their family members. It really affects them mentally and body, mind and soul; it really does."

In a letter to CDC officials last week, the president of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living urged federal officials to help individual states establish reopening strategies inside nursing homes so residents can once again embrace their loved ones.

"For nearly a year, long-term care residents have been unable to visit with their loved ones in person or participate in enriching social activities," Mark Parkinson wrote. "Despite our staff's heroic efforts to keep residents engaged and fill the void of family members, we are deeply concerned that the prolonged isolation of our residents is impacting their health and well-being."

Jenny Hollandsworth, a long-term care ombudsman who represents the needs of Missouri nursing home residents, understands that both residents and their loved ones are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. But she's hopeful new guidelines from the government will be issued soon.

"While it's important to keep residents as safe as possible from COVID-19, social isolation has proven to be extremely detrimental to residents. There needs to be a balance," she said. "(Residents) need that physical, emotional and spiritual support they receive through visiting with family and friends."

Curt McCoy, whose 94-year-old mother is living inside a Joplin nursing home and hasn't physically touched any one of her five sons and daughters in nearly 11 months, certainly hopes that happens.

"They're not telling us that once we get our COVID shots, we'll be able to see our loved ones again," the Joplin resident said. "They just keep saying, 'We don't know.' We can't do this for another year. They need to set down the goalposts and say, 'This is the end — this is where you score the touchdown.'"

If that doesn't happen soon, "it will be so demoralizing," he said.

Reporter John Hacker and The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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