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Whitmer: Nursing homes can reopen to visitors under new public health order
Detroit Free Press - 3/2/2021
For the first time in nearly a year, visitor restrictions on nursing homes in Michigan are easing up, allowing families to see their loved ones in person again -- regardless of how much COVID-19 is spreading in the community, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Tuesday.
"We know that this virus has taken a disproportionate toll on our seniors and the isolation and the time apart has been taxing on everyone with loved ones in long-term care facilities," Whitmer said. "Under the new guidelines, family members ... will be able to go and visit their relatives in nursing homes after receiving a COVID-19 test."
Because people who live in long-term care facilities around the state have all been offered COVID-19 vaccines, and the majority have had two doses, the governor and state health officials say they feel confident they can safely reopen to visitors with precautions in place.
"Under the updated residential care facilities order, visitors are limited to two people per resident, but indoor and outdoor visitation will be allowed at long-term care facilities in all counties regardless of county risk level," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
"Visitation may continue as long as the facility has not had a case of COVID-19 in the previous 14 days, and we ask that all visitors participating in indoor visitation are subject to rapid antigen testing. This testing will help keep residents staff and visitors safe while also allowing for this increased social interaction."
State health officials recommend on-site, rapid COVID-19 antigen testing at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. But if rapid, on-site testing is not available, visitors must be tested on their own within 72 hours prior to the visit and show proof of a negative test result before being allowed to enter.
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"We also ask that visitors wear face masks and other appropriate PPE, and that in general, they maintain that 6 feet of social distancing," Hertel said. "Adult foster care homes and other residences that have 12 or fewer residents are encouraged to implement these visitor and staff testing protocols as well.
"While we are getting closer to putting this pandemic behind us, and with that comes a sense of relief, it is important to remember that COVID-19 is still present in our communities and across the state."
The decision comes as overall COVID-19 case rates in Michigan have declined for six weeks, but now shows signs of plateauing at 91.2 cases per million. The percentage of positive coronavirus tests is now at 3.7%, a slight increase from last week, when it was 3.5%, state data show.
The seven-day average in daily cases rose to 1,107 on Monday, compared with a seven-day average of 845 new daily cases on Feb. 22, according to a Free Press analysis of state data. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan have plateaued since Feb. 19.
"While we continue to have virus very present across the entire state, our improvements in case numbers, test positivity, and vaccinations mean we can move forward with reopening in an incremental way," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive and chief deputy for health.
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Overall, Khaldun said, long-term care facilities still have the most ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks and "make up over 40% of all reported ongoing outbreaks" in the state.
Whitmer also announced Tuesday that capacity limits at restaurants, in retail businesses, at gyms, casinos and other venues would be eased -- even though some national health leaders caution that it's still too soon.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday she is "deeply concerned" about the potential for a shift in the trajectory of the pandemic. Though cases and hospitalizations have fallen significantly since their January peak, there has been a 2% uptick in the last week nationally.
"These data are evidence that our recent declines appear to be stalling - stalling at over 70,000 cases a day," she said Monday. "With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19. I understand the temptation to do this. Seventy thousand cases a day seemed good compared to where we were just a few months ago. But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.
"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close."
Still, it's welcome news for people who've been missing face-to-face interaction with loved ones in long-term care.
"With millions of residents and caregivers now fully protected thanks to the vaccines, residents must be able to safely reengage in meaningful activities and be reunited with their loved ones," said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living in a statement released Tuesday.
Nationally, nursing homes have seen the lowest number of new COVID-19 cases since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services started tracking in May 2020, with an 82% decline in cases among residents since Dec. 20.
"We still have a long road ahead, but these numbers are incredibly encouraging and a major morale booster for front-line caregivers who have been working tirelessly every day for a year to protect our residents," Parkinson said. "This new data showcases just how important it is for nursing homes residents and staff, as well as the general public, to get the vaccine because it is clearly working."
Contact Kristen Shamus: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Whitmer: Nursing homes can reopen to visitors under new public health order
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