COLUMBIA, S.C. (WMBF) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and staff members with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced Tuesday guidelines for nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state to offer limited outdoor visitation.
“We understand how difficult it has been during these past few months for friends and families to be distanced from their loved ones who reside in nursing homes and similar facilities, but we believe the visitation restrictions put in place have helped save lives and have helped protect the health and wellbeing of the dedicated workers who care for these residents,” said Marshall Taylor, acting director of DHEC.
Those guidelines from DHEC include:
- Screening of residents for any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection with documentation is occurring at least daily and for staff at the start of each shift.
- Facility has adequate staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Facility must provide their written plan for limited outdoor visitation to DHEC’s Healthcare Quality division.
- There have been no cases among staff and residents identified in the facility within the last 14 days.
- For a nursing home, testing must be occurring per CMS requirements before visitation may begin at the facility. Community residential care facilities (and intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities who are recommended to follow these guidelines) may begin visitations before testing is in place, but testing as described in the CMS requirements for nursing homes must be occurring within 30 days from when these Guidelines for Outdoor Visitation are issued.
According to a press release from DHEC, each nursing home and assisted living facility will need a reasonable amount of time in order to meet the criteria outlined in these guidelines, meaning outdoor visitation will not be immediately available. South Carolinians are encouraged to coordinate directly with facilities to determine when visitation may be permitted and to coordinate visits when possible.
DHEC also recommends that these guidelines be used by intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“The time has come, based on what we’ve learned, what we’ve experienced, to reunite our families, loved ones and caregivers safely, as best we can,” McMaster said.
The guidelines include triggers for temporarily suspending visitation at a facility, which are:
- If one or more cases are identified in residents and/or staff members, visitation must be suspended until CMS testing protocols are completed. Visitation may resume if fewer than three total cases have been identified.
- If three or more cases are identified in staff members and/or residents within a 14-day period, visitation must be suspended. Visitation may resume 14 days after the identification of the last case. It’s noted that resident that previously tested positive and now retests positive within three months of original positive test, is not considered a new case. It is unknown at this time whether an individual can be re-infected. This guidance may be updated as more information is learned on viral persistence and risk for reinfection
- For a nursing home, if testing is not occurring per CMS requirements, visitation must be suspended. For a community residential care facility (or an intermediate care facility for individuals with intellectual disabilities who are recommended to follow these guidelines), testing as described in CMS requirements for nursing homes must be occurring within 30 days from when these “Guidelines for Outdoor Visitation” are issued, or else visitation must be suspended until testing is in place and criteria are met.
The governor said there will be a task force monitoring the process outlined in the guidelines, as well as the progress under this process.
“Strict rules and procedures must be followed if this is going to work,” McMaster said, adding he doesn’t want to see visitation in any assisted living facility or nursing home suspended due to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
The complete guidelines can be seen below:
Staff at Brightwater Senior Living Community said they’re excited DHEC has released these guidelines because, after a nearly 6-month wait, some of their members will finally see their loved ones face to face again.
Executive director for Brightwater, Michael Fink, said the facility currently meets DHEC’s reopening guidelines for allowing visitations inside of their Assisted Living Center, Memory Care and Skilled Nursing Community.
This means Brightwater is able to screen residents for COVID-19 symptoms and provide DHEC an outline for allowing guests to see their loved ones outside with the social distancing requirements in place.
Fink said although he’s excited the governor is allowing their facility to begin the process of lifting the restrictions, he needs families to not forget, residents are still a vulnerable population during the COVID threat.
“We all should be mindful of what this virus has done to others,” Fink said. “We all should be considering the safety and risk of others during the visitation process.”
Horry County resident Don Odom has been writing the governor’s office for months, in the hopes that this day would finally come. Odom said he’s grateful McMaster and DHEC started allowing the nursing homes to get the visitation process started. He just hopes one day soon, he’ll see his wife face-to-face both inside and outside of the facilities.
“We got to start somewhere,” Odom said.
Visitations at long-term care facilities have been restricted since March to end-of-life visits on a case-by-case basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the summer, families of nursing home residents have pushed for the restrictions to be loosened.
On Aug. 21, McMaster sent a letter to DHEC chairman Mark Elam, urging the agency to “promptly issue up-to-date visitation guidelines providing all direction and information deemed necessary to resume – or require resumption if necessary – in-person visitation with residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.”