Family members of nursing home residents are now allowed to visit loved ones whenever they want — and regardless of vaccination status — in a stunning reversal of pandemic-era restrictions imposed almost two years ago.
The state Department of Health quietly updated its visitation guidance Tuesday evening, bringing the state’s rules in line with federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services standards released Nov. 12.
“While all residents have a right to visitation, fully open and unrestricted visitation posed a clinical health and safety risk to other residents during this [public health emergency], and therefore, it was reasonable to place limits on visitation,” the guidance says.
“However, at this time, continued restrictions on this vital resident’s right are no longer necessary.”
Family members may now visit loved ones without first making appointments, may meet indoors or outdoors and without needing to show proof of vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 test.
Nursing home advocates have sought better access to facilities, arguing the continued limitations negatively impact the mental and physical health of residents.
“For almost two years, families have been under the directive of the government…telling us when we can put our hands on our loved ones,” said Marcella Goheen, whose husband Robert “Bobby” Viteri has lived at the Isabella Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care in Manhattan for five years.
On Tuesday, she visited Bobby — who has a rare neurological degenerative disorder called leukodystrophy that prevents him from eating, talking or even moving on his own — telling The Post now that she no longer needs to schedule visits it “doesn’t feel like we’re visiting them in prison.”
“We went to hell and back,” she added.
The change comes as COVID-19 vaccination rates have risen — right now 89 percent of all nursing home residents statewide are fully vaccinated, according to the DOH.
Ninety-four percent of all nursing homes staffers have completed their vaccination series, following a requirement issued earlier this fall that all healthcare workers get the shot or face termination.
“Visits should be conducted in a manner that adheres to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention and does not increase risk to other residents,” reads the CMS guidance, referring to protocols such as mask wearing, physical distancing and disinfection practices by elder care facilities.
Facilities are also required to adhere to guidance so long as visits don’t “impose on the rights of another resident” — for example unvaccinated residents and visitors should be kept separate — and failing to do so “would constitute a potential violation and the facility would be subject to citation and enforcement actions.”
However, visitors “should not enter the facility” if they have tested positive for the disease or exhibiting symptoms, per the guidance.
“I think it’s good that some restrictions have been taken off and families have a better ability to visit loved ones, but I’m just concerned that it might go too far by allowing unvaccinated and potentially infectious people in the building,” said Jim Clyne, president of LeadingAge New York, which represents non-profit senior care facilities.
“They’re trying to get to a place where residents are allowed to make a decision on how much risk they want to take, which is fine, but the problem is they’re living in a congregate setting. So that person could be in a building with other unvaccinated people.
Over 15,000 residents have died of confirmed or presumed virus cases in facilities or hospitals since March 2020.
The FBI/US Eastern District of New York launched an investigation into the state’s handling of the virus in these homes after The Post exclusively reported that disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top aides refused to release nursing home death data to the US Department of Justice under then-President Donald Trump.
The state Assembly Judiciary Committee is also conducting its own probe into the data and is expected to release a report detailing its findings later this month.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has publicly apologized to family members who lost loved ones and has pledged to release more data pertaining to long term care facilities.