Waiting to see loved ones again: federal guidelines may stall TN nursing home visitation as state restrictions lift

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Tennessee is set to lift visitation restrictions for long-term care facilities and nursing homes on Sunday.

The initial announcement from the state’s Department of Health set off excitement this week as countless families have been waiting to see their loved ones again. But with federal-level COVID-19 guidelines still active, this doesn’t necessarily mean these facilities can open their doors to visitors right away.

Most facilities in the Northeast Tennessee area will still have to follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that place limitations on when visitation can resume. These restrictions are still in place even as TDH reports vaccinations at all long-term care facilities across the state are nearly completed.

For Dina Cole, the visitation restrictions can’t lift soon enough.

Cole used to visit her great-grandmother, Inez Robison, nearly every day at Agape Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Johnson City.

Dina Cole and Inez Robison

Now a great, great, great grandmother – Robison has many family members who miss seeing her a year into the pandemic.

“She’s on the early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia. She doesn’t understand. I tried to explain to her once, but she really doesn’t know what’s going on,” said Cole.

“I went up there one time, and talked to her on the phone, and was talking to her through the window. But it got her upset so I didn’t do it again. And I never went back up there to do that. Because she didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me inside the building.”

Inez with her great-great grandson in 2019
Inez has not yet been able to see her great-great-great granddaughter, born in November 2020

Inez Robison will turn 97 years old on February 28 – the same day the TDH will lift visitation restrictions on nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Cole was hoping to visit her great-grandmother on her birthday, but has been told this isn’t possible yet.

TDH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Friday that individual facilities still have their own policies on when visitation can begin, despite the state lifting restrictions.

“That does not mean that every nursing home or long-term care facility will be open season and will fling their doors open on Sunday or Monday,” Piercey said.

Additionally, CMS guidelines say facilities conducting outbreak testing or having a new case within the past 14 days will remain restricted.

Also restricted are facilities inside counties with 7-day average test positivity rates higher than 10 percent. Several Northeast Tennessee Counties surpassed 10 percent as of Thursday.

Northeast TN county positivity rates as of Feb. 26

“If we’re seeing high positivity rates in our counties then regardless of what they’re seeing in individual nursing homes, they still may not be able to open because of that,” said Dr. Bert Smith of Renuven Health Partners.

Smith serves as a physician for several Northeast Tennessee long-term care facilities. He says allowing visitation again is huge for patient’s mental health and clinical improvement.

“We as providers welcome the families back when the guidelines allow that. So we’re hopeful that that’ll be soon,” he said.

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