Nursing home visitation hinges on COVID outbreak status, county test positivity rates

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – People got excited when the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) announced Tuesday it would soon remove visitation restrictions for long-term care facilities. The devil is in the details, though, and those details have as much to do with federal regulations as they do with state oversight.

The TDH announcement was filled with references to CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) guidelines and how those take precedence.

Key factors include whether a facility is conducting outbreak testing, how long it’s been since its last new case among residents or staff, and the COVID test positivity percentage in the county where the facility is located.

Any facility still conducting outbreak testing or having a new case within the past 14 days remains very restricted.

So do all facilities inside counties with 7-day average test positivity rates higher than 10 percent. As of yesterday, that included Sullivan, Unicoi and Carter counties according to TDH data.

Current Northeast Tennessee county COVID test positivity rates color coded by CDC thresholds. Nursing home visitation is limited to “compassionate care situations” in counties with rates above 10 percent.

While the number of regional facilities in current COVID outbreak status has declined by about two thirds the past four weeks, 13 still remain in that status.

Still, a look at the factors that will drive visitation decision-making shows the region moving much closer to the day when loved ones will be able to walk back inside those facilities.

TDH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said in a statement Wednesday that state-imposed visitation restrictions will end Sunday. She cited the near completion of COVID vaccinations at the state’s long-term care facilities.

The department’s release also recognized “the extraordinary challenges long-term care facilities, their residents and the family members and caregivers of these particularly vulnerable Tennesseans have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic” — including the emotional toll of isolation.

“Now that vaccinations at all long-term care facilities are nearing completion, we are ready to transition to a more sustainable approach of following these best practices for safe operation of long-term care facilities in Tennessee,” Piercey said.

COVID’s impact inside the region’s facilities is clearly illustrated through a comparison of the five weeks that ended Jan. 15 compared to the five weeks that ended Feb. 19. TDH reports on outbreaks each Friday.

Between early December and mid-January, 373 new resident cases were reported over five weeks. That number plummeted to 64 over the following five weeks.

New staff cases dropped by more than half during the same period — from 173 to 70.

And the impact that stings the most — deaths from COVID — has taken a dramatic downward turn.

While 76 people died from COVID as a result of nursing home outbreaks in the five weeks ended Jan. 15, the five weeks since have seen just 13 deaths recorded.

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