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‘We’re taking baby steps:’ long-term care facilities make plans to reopen for visitors

Jaymi Butler

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assisted living
There have been more than 40,600 cases of Covid-19 tied to long-term care facilities since the pandemic began in March, forcing facilities to close their doors to visitors.

Florida’s long-term care facilities have been hit hard by the physical impacts of Covid-19, but the emotional devastation for residents and their families who have been kept apart since visitation was banned March 15 has been just as painful.

That’s going to change due to Tuesday’s statewide emergency order lifting visitation restrictions in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities. The order will be implemented in the upcoming days as facilities work to establish new protocols to handle the adjustment.

Speaking at a roundtable on visitation in Jacksonville, Governor Ron DeSantis grew visibly emotional as he talked about what families with loved ones in long-term care have been going through over the last six months. 

“Human beings seek affection, and you have family members who understand they have loved ones in the last stage of their life,” he said. “They’re not demanding a medical miracle. They’re not having unrealistic expectations. They’d just like to be able to say goodbye or hug somebody.”

Related content: DeSantis to form committee to explore measures to allow safe visitation in long-term care facilities

Tuesday’s order isn’t a blanket reopening where everything will suddenly go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. The order specifies that all visitors must wear PPE in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines, they must be 18 or older and they are required to maintain social distancing of at least six feet with staff and residents. Additionally:

  • Facilities can’t allow visitors unless 14 days without a positive case, except in the cases of essential caregivers.
  • If a staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the facility must immediately cease all indoor and outdoor visitation if the staffer was in the building during the 10 days prior to the positive test.
  • Visitors will be screened and facilities are directed to ensure they’re not quarantining, showing symptoms or have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • Appointments will be required.
  • Residents can designate up to five visitors, and two can visit at a time.
Madeline McCarthy

McCarthy

Madeline McCarthy, the senior regional director of operations for TJM Properties, which operates two senior living facilities in Pinellas County, has been monitoring the state’s plan to reopen closely. She said her residents and their families have been supportive and trusting of the preventative measures that were put in place to limit the spread of the virus and praised her staff for being creative in finding ways for families to connect.

“We bought iPads and tablets and we started tech classes to set up residents with Zoom and Skype,” she said. “We did drive-by parades for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the Fourth of July.”

Additionally, residents with balconies were able to go outside and speak to their loved ones from a distance, and the staff created a walking club where residents could visit local parks to get socially distanced exercise.

“These things have really contributed to our residents’ mental health,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had to think outside the box.”

Being creative and flexible will be helpful as McCarthy and her team work on plans to reopen, although she admits to being a little nervous about the idea. 

“We’re happy and our residents and our families are excited,” she said. “It’s a vulnerable position to be in to open our doors, but we don’t want to deny our residents from seeing their loved ones. They’ve waited long enough.”

The measures being taken will go above and beyond what the state has outlined, McCarthy said. The facilities will have designated spaces where families can visit, and there will be supervision to ensure people are practicing social distancing. 

“People won’t be able to just come in and hug,” she said. “We’re taking baby steps.” 

McCarthy said her goal is to have visitors by the end of next week, and she’s optimistic that it will be a positive experience.

“I am hopeful our residents’ mental health will increase when they see their family, but everyone has to be willing to follow the guidelines,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

To read the full emergency order, click here.

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