Tennessee will relax visitation rules for long-term care facilities starting Oct. 1, removing the requirement that the county has to have limited coronavirus spread in order to allow nursing homes or assisted living facilities to welcome visitors.
Starting next month, facilities will be judged primarily on how many cases have been confirmed among its own residents and staff. If they’ve gone 14 days with no new cases, they can allow outdoor visits and limited indoor interaction with masks and social distancing. For residents, communal dining can also resume as well as social activities and visits from barbers and beauticians.
“It’s time to reunite residents and their families in a safe and disciplined manner so we can better balance the physical and emotional needs of older Tennesseans,” Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee Health Commissioner, said in a statement.
Facilities that go 28 days without a new case would be allowed to start what’s being called an “essential caregiver program.” As many as five family and friends who help care for a resident will be able to see them regularly, though they will have to get tested for the coronavirus every week, just like nursing home staff.
Currently, roughly 260 facilities (listed here) have reported at least one coronavirus case in the last 28 days. So any facility not on the list, and many who are, would have the option to begin the visitation program next month.
In a background call with reporters, health department officials acknowledge there will be a heightened temptation to conceal new COVID-19 cases. But they say nursing homes would be deterred from deceit since they could lose all federal reimbursement if found in violation.
Last month, Piercey said it was time to loosen restrictions on nursing home visitation but that she was waiting on federal guidance she believed to be imminent. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services still hasn’t acted, but health officials say Tennessee has run the plan by the feds to at least get a verbal blessing.
Tennessee experienced early outbreaks at nursing homes that resulted in dozens of deaths. But the state acted more quickly than many others to require coronavirus testing of all residents and staff. Epidemiologists have credited the surveillance testing with keeping Tennessee’s mortality rate relatively low, since elderly patients are among the most likely to die from COVID-19.
The state required weekly testing of staff starting in July, months ahead of a similar federal requirement. The Tennessee Department of Health was also paying for those testing programs but will stop Oct. 1, as the new rules take effect.