Statewide NewsTexas Reopens Nursing Homes for Visits, Negative COVID-19 Tests Not Required

Texas' reopening now includes more widely available visitation to long-term care residents who have been largely isolated for a year. However, some facilities appear to be continuing to limit visitation.
April 5, 2021
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Re-opening long-term care facilities is not optional, and opportunities for visitation must be provided according to new emergency rules issued by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). 

The rules were instituted for nursing homes, assisted living centers, and other long-term care facilities at the end of March. 

In its guidance, the Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman office, which advocates for residents and their families, recommends that family members contact a facility to make sure it knows of the new visitation rules.

While all visitors will continue to be screened for symptoms of COVID-19, no facility can “require a personal visitor to provide documentation of a COVID-19 negative test or COVID-19 vaccination status as a condition of visitation or to enter the facility.”

All residents who are COVID-19 negative are allowed to have personal visits with family and friends. The visits can be indoors or outdoors, but the facilities have latitude in scheduling visits to allow time for the facility to clean and disinfect before and after visits. Facilities can also limit the number of visitors allowed at one time in order to make sure the group allows for social distancing from other residents or visitors.

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Patty Ducayet, the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said that her office is receiving some questions and concerns about the length of visits for essential caregivers and general visitation. She said some facilities are setting the time limits to as little as 30 minutes once per week.

“It’s very clear that the governor and HHSC have messaged the intention to open long-term care facilities up to visitors and to give residents something they’ve been largely deprived of – time with loved ones. Some facilities are embracing these changes, while others seek to limit visiting and maintain control over their operations without the eyes and ears of visitors,” Ducayet told The Texan.

If the resident is fully vaccinated, he can choose to have close personal contact with the visitors, but the visitors are still supposed to wear a mask and residents are required to wear one as tolerated.

There is no age limit for visitors, but young visitors must be able to abide by facility procedures and wear proper personal protective equipment, Kevin Knippa, a senior policy specialist at HHSC, said during a webinar on April 5.

If a county where the facility is located experiences a COVID-19 positivity rate of over 10 percent, then the indoor visits will be suspended. However, if the county positivity rate is over 10 percent but at least 70 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, indoor visits will not be suspended. Outdoor visits are not impacted by county positivity rates. 

Visits by those designated as essential caregivers by a resident are allowed, even for residents who may have COVID-19. A change from previous rules, both designated caregivers can visit simultaneously. According to HHSC, the caregivers need not be monitored or escorted to and from the resident’s room.  

For residents who are considered in the end stages of life, visitors are allowed no matter the COVID-19 status of the resident. HHSC encourages these visits and advises facilities not to wait until death is imminent to allow visits. 

An end-of-life status is defined as someone receiving hospice services, at or near the end of life or whose prognosis does not indicate recovery is likely. 

“Safely visiting with family and friends is vital to the mental health and well-being of long-term care residents,” Victoria Ford, HHSC chief policy and regulatory officer, stated in a press release. “We are so pleased these new rules will allow residents to enjoy in-person visits with a wider circle of loved ones.”

Not much has changed with the new rules for Stephanie Kirby, and her 28-year-old son Petre who lives at the Denton State-Supported Living Center. She believes the newest HHSC rules leave too much latitude for the facilities to continue limiting the duration of visits.

Kirby told The Texan that she no longer has to be escorted to Petre’s room, but her visits have still been limited to about 90 minutes. Kirby is trying to remain patient with the facility especially given the Easter holiday.

“It’s just a little hard knowing I only get an hour and a half while others get the whole day because their loved ones can be taken on outings,” she explained.

Before March 13, 2020, Petre would jump up and down when his mom visited, drink his favorite shake, and look through the box of goodies she would bring, but now he just lies in bed. 

“I’m scared that he won’t recover. I hold the governor responsible for that. I hold HHSC responsible too. It was too long. It isn’t just the residents who have suffered. The families have suffered too, and some of us will never be the same,” she said.

Nursing homes and other facilities have been functioning under emergency rules for visitation for over a year.

According to Texas Government Code, emergency rules adopted may be effective for not longer than 120 days and may be renewed for not longer than 60 days.

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.

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