Debate heats up over nursing home visits

Most nursing home residents across the state have been vaccinated, but the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant has many operators worried about relaxing visitation rules.



July 21, 2021 - 8:37 AM

Courtesy photo

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Families and advocates for the elderly in Kansas argue that with most nursing home residents vaccinated against COVID-19, some facilities’ visiting rules need to be relaxed, though the delta variant’s spread is making operators nervous.

A state official who investigates complaints against nursing homes and the elder-care focused Kansas Advocates for Better Care are calling on the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to crack down on homes that aren’t open enough. They’re concerned that the delta variant will prompt new lockdowns. 

The aging department says it is working to ensure that residents and families have a voice in visitation policies, though some industry officials still see a need to proceed with caution.

The debate shows how operators feel they’re still facing tough choices after nursing homes were COVID-19 hot spots early on during the pandemic. It also shows how residents’ and families’ anguish and anger still linger.

“We hear about the threat of the COVID and the death from COVID, and its real,” Camille Russell, the state’s long-term care ombudsman, said Tuesday. “What we don’t understand is the pain and suffering and neglect and deaths that happen when there are not other people in the building.”

Clusters of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes accounted for fewer than 5% of the 324,000 cases reported by Kansas as of Monday but for nearly 39% of the state’s 5,200 reported deaths — more than 2,000 of them.

More than 90% of those cases and deaths happened before May 4, but they’re still happening, with nine active clusters as of last week. Meanwhile, confirmed delta variant cases grew by 84% during the 10-day period that ended Monday.

“It’s not time to fling the doors open with no guidance,” said Debra Zehr, CEO of LeadingAge Kansas, which represents nonprofit aging-services providers.

Limits on visitors, including lockdowns early in the pandemic, were aimed at preventing people from bringing COVID-19 into nursing homes, where elderly residents were particularly vulnerable to severe complications.

“Our families — our base — have basically been very, very supportive for the most part,” said Elizabeth Howarth, administrator of the Homestead Health Center in southwestern Wichita.

State and industry officials said homes’ current visitation policies are driven by guidance from federal and state regulators and health officials. The guidance calls for restricting visitors when more than 10% of a county’s COVID-19 tests are positive and fewer than 70% of a home’s residents are vaccinated.

The state said its overall positivity rate was 8.1% on Friday, but the figure has been as high as 11.2% this month. The federal government says more than 84% of Kansas nursing home residents have been fully vaccinated, while the rate for staff is 55%.

Homestead Health in Wichita does not limit how many times family members can visit residents each week. But it requires appointments, keeps visits to 45 minutes and allows two adult visitors per resident.

Those policies took effect in March, when about 90% of the residents had been vaccinated. Howarth said most family members didn’t want to visit without being vaccinated themselves.

And, she added, “That pandemic train is still coming down the track.”