‘This year it’s completely different’: Nursing homes ease up on visitation rules ahead of holidays

With high COVID-19 vaccination rates among nursing home residents, the federal government changes rules while urging caution

A health care worker holds a senior citizen's hand
In this July 17, 2020 file photo, a senior citizen holds the hand of a care coordinator at a health facility in Miami. Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo       

Thanksgiving at nursing homes across Wisconsin will be very different compared to last year when there was no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and many visits were virtual. The federal government recently instructed nursing homes to ease up on pandemic restrictions for residents’ family and friends.

And at least one long-term care facility in the state is letting residents travel for the holiday.

“This year, it’s completely different from where we were last year. We’re allowing people to go out to their families’ homes with a lot of encouragement to those gathering to make sure no one is symptomatic, been exposed to COVID-19, and to social distance if unvaccinated,” said Sondra Norder, administrator at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna.

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Across the state, 89 percent of nursing home residents are fully vaccinated, according to government data. St. Paul Elder Services is giving booster shots to residents, and those who have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the disease will no longer be restricted to virtual visits under the new federal rule.

“That’s a big change for us,” said Norder.

Early in the pandemic, in-person visitation was restricted across the country as nursing home deaths mounted. But facilities are adjusting to meet the social needs of residents and families who missed seeing them.

“Since the spring, we’ve really tried to open it up. When there was an outbreak in a facility, we certainly tried to contain that outbreak so that visitation could continue,” said Rick Abrams, president and CEO of Wisconsin Healthcare Association/Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living.

On Friday, there were 535 active COVID-19 outbreaks at long term care facilities, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. An outbreak is defined as one or more positive cases, regardless of whether the case is a staff or resident.

Federal data shows nearly 70 percent of staff at nursing homes had been fully vaccinated as of Nov. 7.

Nursing homes participating in Medicare and Medicaid must have nearly all staff fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4, under an emergency regulation issued Nov. 4. Exemptions are allowed for staff with certain recognized medical conditions or religious beliefs.

The requirement does not apply to assisted living facilities. Just days after the Biden administration issued the requirement, a coalition of 10 state attorneys general filed suit against the federal government seeking to invalidate the so-called interim final rule.