COVID infection rates are down in 7 N.J. counties, offering hope that nursing home may resume visits

Posted Feb 24, 2021

Infection rates for coronavirus are down in seven counties in Central and South Jersey, a promising sign that may lead to the resumption of nursing home visits, but only if the facilities can show they have been COVID-free for two weeks, state officials said Wednesday.

COVID activity has declined from high to “moderate” levels in Hunterdon, Mercer and Somerset counties in the central-west region of the state, and Burlington, Camden, Gloucester counties in southwest New Jersey, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced Wednesday.

“This is good news,” Persichilli said during Wednesday’s regular coronavirus briefing. “We are seeing the outbreaks in our long-term care facilities decrease.”

But nursing homes and other long-term care facilities located in these seven counties may only re-open for visits if the can prove they meet requirements set by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last fall. They require a facility must go 14 days without a new case or a suspected case under investigation.

That is a high bar that most nursing homes have not been able to clear, Long-Term Care Ombudsman Laurie Brewer said following the announcement.

On Wednesday, there were 362 long-term care facilities, more than half in the state, with an active coronavirus outbreak, according to the website.

“It is undoubtedly good news that the infection rates are going down in these counties and that, as a result, social visitation can occur in facilities that are not in outbreak status,” Brewer said. “But if a facility is still in outbreak status or if they are investigating a possible outbreak, social visitation remains paused and that is a problem that a lot of residents and families continue to face.”

There are other requirements long-term care facilities must meet before visits may resume, the state’s top health official said. They include the facility confirming they have enough staff, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and space for a designated meeting area, Persichilli said.

Visitors and residents also must sign informed consent documents that say they understand the potential risks involved, Persichilli said. Visits are by appointment only.

Visitors and residents must remain “socially-distanced” — masked and six feet apart, she said.

The state Health Department made the determination about the seven counties based on the COVID-19 activity level index or CALI score, which is based on the case rate as a percentage of the population, the percent positivity rate over seven days, and evidence of COVID-like illness in hospital emergency rooms.

Bill Borrelle, the son of an assisted living resident and the founder of a resident advocate group, FACE for Seniors, agreed the announcement does not really change much for families who have agonized over the isolation their loved ones have dealt with for nearly a year.

“Seeing the CALI score drop in some counties is a sign of progress in the reduction in COVID cases, and I appreciate the Commissioner calling attention to these reductions and their impact on visitation in long-term care facilities,” Borrelle said. “However, this is simply a statement of the current visitation directive in place since last year and not a change in the day-to-day visitation policy that prohibits families from visitation and essential caregiving.”

Until the federal government relaxes its guidance on long-term care visits, not much will change anytime soon, Brewer added. But facility operators can and should be more flexible with who can qualify as needing a “compassionate care” visit, because the rates of depression among residents are alarming.

“My office advocates for families and residents to be granted in-person visitation under existing provisions that allow for ‘compassionate care’ visits, which can occur regardless of whether the facility is in outbreak status. I strongly urge long-term care facilities to expand the number of family members and other caregivers who can visit under this provision.”

State and federal regulators closed nursing homes for visits in mid-March.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-02-25 02:27:03 -0800