Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and state health officials today announced new guidance for nursing homes and long-term care facilities aimed at allowing family visitations, which were prohibited almost one year ago owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new guidelines require an online training for all visitors and differ based on whether residents and/or their visitors have been vaccinated. The state will not be requiring facilities to resume visitations, but Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said his agency is “strongly encouraging” the resumption of indoor nursing home visits. (Outdoor visitation has already been occuring at some facilities in recent weeks.)
“This time has been incredibly difficult for all of us, but especially those who have been isolated from their loved ones,” Frye said. “One year into the pandemic, we know isolation has taken a toll on many of our nursing home residents. Essential care includes not only physical wellbeing of residents, but also their mental wellbeing.”
Stitt noted that Oklahoma’s COVID-19 statistics have improved dramatically in recent weeks, with hospitalizations down 83 percent since January and the state currently ranked seventh in per-capita vaccination.
“Because of that progress, now is the time to reunite Oklahoma families and let them visit their loved ones safely,” Stitt said. “Isolation and depression are very real threats.”
Tuesday’s press conference occurred at Saint Ann Skilled Nursing & Therapy, in northwest Oklahoma City, which is affiliated with the Archdiocese. Amanda Furry’s mother, Margala Saunders, lives at Saint Ann and was isolated for months after the state prohibited nursing home visits soon after the novel coronavirus was detected in Oklahoma.
“She has been here several years, and prior to COVID we came two to three times a week to visit her,” Furry said. “It was very important to us and all of our family members.”
Furry said she has been grateful for the care and hard work of Saint Ann employees.
“All the nursing staff and the administrators have been unbelievable in what I’m sure was a crazy, busy time for them,” she said.
Visitation plan details different scenarios
The Oklahoma State Department of Health’s new guidelines are outlined in a chart embedded above, and state officials emphasized that facilities regulated by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services need to make sure CMS does not issue any contradictory rules.
Right now, there are no CMS prohibitions against nursing home visits, said Travis Kirkpatrick, OSDH deputy commissioner of health.
“There is nothing in this guidance that will put facilities at loggerheads with CMS. That’s not our intention,” he said. “This does apply to all facilities whether they are CMS (regulated) or not.”
Sen. Jessica Garvin (R-Duncan) also spoke during Tuesday’s press conference. Garvin is an administrator for long-term care and assisted living operations in southwest Oklahoma.
“Nursing homes, long term care facilities that are overseen by CMS (…) those facilities are bound by CMS guidelines no matter what the state guidelines are, and that has been the confusing thing to a lot of Oklahomans,” Garvin said.
Stitt sent a letter (embedded below) to CMS on Tuesday morning urging the agency to craft federal guidelines for nursing home visits.
“The standard of getting back to normal can’t be zero cases. We can do this safely, and I think the time is now,” Stitt said.
Garvin said she hopes indoor nursing home visits will begin at many facilities by the end of next week.
“The facilities will need time to implement this enhanced visitation policy. So I just ask the public to be patient,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”