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NY Announces New Nursing Home Visitation Rules

At a protest outside the state Capitol, Mary Beth Delarm displays pictures of her mother, who died in a nursing home in May during the COVID-19 pandemic
Karen DeWitt
File: At a protest outside the state Capitol, Mary Beth Delarm displays pictures of her mother, who died in a nursing home in May during the COVID-19 pandemic

Residents of nursing homes in New York will be able to receive visitors again starting February 26, under new rules laid out by Governor Andrew Cuomo and state health officials. State officials had delayed reopening the nursing homes, closed to visitors since last March, until all of the residents were offered a chance to take the vaccine for the coronavirus. 73% of residents have now agreed to receive both doses. 15,000 elderly residents of nursing homes and other long-term adult care facilities died of COVID-19 so far in the pandemic, the vast majority of them alone.   

The visitation rules will vary, depending on the rate of the virus in the county where the nursing home is located. State Health Commissioner Dr.  Howard Zucker, says in counties where the rate of the virus is less than 5%, visitors to nursing homes do not have to be tested, although testing is encouraged. 

In counties where the rate of infection is between 5 and 10%, visitors would have to undergo testing and show a negative test result within 72 hours before the visit. Zucker says some homes could offer rapid testing for guests.

Visitors to nursing homes will continue to be banned in counties where the virus rate is 10% or higher, or in any facility where someone has contracted COVID within the past 14 days. 

Zucker says exceptions will be made for visitors who have received the vaccine.

“If a visitor has had two vaccines, and it’s been 14 days since their second vaccine…then there’s probably no need for a test,” Zucker said. “However, we encourage to test anyway.”

He says the vaccines might not prevent the asymptomatic spread of the virus even in someone who had received both doses. 

In all homes and adult care centers, no more than 20% of the residents can receive visitors at any one time, and the homes are encouraged to set up separate rooms for visits. Masks and social distancing are required at all times. 

The announcement came as welcome news to families who have waited more than 11 months to see their relatives in nursing homes. 

But others say the changes come too late.

Senator Pam Helming, a Republican from Canandaigua, says she recently lost two relatives in nursing homes. She says while they did not die directly of COVID, she, like thousands of relatives of nursing home residents, believe that the social isolation led many frail, elderly New Yorkers to decline, both mentally and physically.

“The cause of death on my last loved one ‘failure to thrive,’” Helming said. 

Helming says she is “extremely thankful”  that visits can resume, but she says the months long delay will not bring back people who she believes might otherwise have lived.

“It’s too late,” Helming said. “And I have to wonder could we have saved the lives of people? Could we at the very least have reunited families and loved ones if the legislature had a say in these decisions that are being made?”   

Helming, along with all of the minority Republicans in the legislature intended to vote for a hostile amendment to rescind Cuomo’s emergency powers under the pandemic. Many Democrats also back immediate revocation of the sweeping authority granted to the governor by the legislature last year. But Democratic majority leaders are working towards a plan that would instead curb the powers, by appointing an oversight commission to review emergency orders.    

Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, and his administration are under federal investigation for their handling of nursing homes policies. So far, the controversy has centered on the months long suppression of the number of residents with COVID who were transferred to hospitals and died there.

The true numbers were not released until Democratic state Attorney General Tish James issued a report that found the Cuomo administration had undercounted the numbers by 50%.

Cuomo, in the briefing, dodged a question on whether he or anyone in his administration has been subpoenaed in the probe, led by the United States Attorney for Eastern New York, located in Brooklyn. The governor would only say that he and his aides have been cooperating with all inquiries from the federal government, beginning with questions from the Justice Department under the administration of former President Donald Trump last August.

“We have complied with the inquiry and will continue to,” Cuomo said.

The governor also announced new rules for the opening of movie theaters in New York City and other areas where theaters have remained closed.  The theaters can open at 25% capacity, and must install new ventilation systems approved by the department of health. Theater workers will not however, be eligible to get vaccinated until there are more doses available, sometime later this year. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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