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I-TEAM: A year into pandemic, some nursing homes are still closed

Published: Mar. 11, 2021 at 6:01 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - There’s good news and bad news if your loved one is in a nursing home.

The good news? The Georgia Healthcare Association says new COVID cases in long-term care facilities are down nearly 80 percent in the state since January and the majority of residents are now vaccinated.

The bad news? The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services just released updated guidelines for visitation yesterday, and vaccinations will not give families a free pass to visit their loved ones in nursing homes.

Our I-Team has been covering the virus’ devasting impact in local nursing homes since the first loss of life.

“You sneak in late though after you are supposed to be at home... she would behind the door with a broom that’s the kind of stuff she did.”

Linda Hallman wouldn’t dare not say what she meant to her mother, even when her mother’s memory began to fail.

“I didn’t miss a day not one day,” she said. “She went in May of 2018... I promised her I would be there every day every single day up until they locked the door…and I miss her.”

It’s been 365 days since Hallman has walked through the doors at The Place at Pepperhill in Aiken.

“I thought maybe it would be a couple of weeks. Here we are a year later, she just smiles at us through the window.”

It’s still difficult to make sense of it all a year later. It’s even more difficult for 88-year-old Carrie Lewis-Harris to understand.

“That’s the biggest fear that she might pass away before we can see her because mama’s is not in really good health and Alzheimer’s,” Hallman explained.

More than 6,000 long-term care residents in Georgia and South Carolina have died of the virus since nursing homes first closed. We lost 362 of our own right here in the CSRA.

Many families never had the chance to say hello and let alone goodbye.

MORE COVERAGE

“2020 was a fairly devasting year it certainly it was certainly the most difficult year any long-term care provider has ever faced,” Tony Marshall said.

Marshall is the president and CEO of the Georgia Healthcare Association. His organizations represent the nursing home industry in Georgia.

“When comparing that to January, we were down about 73 percent in the number of positive resident cases in long-term care and about 68 percent decline in the number of deaths,” he explained. “…which is indicative that the vaccines are doing their job.”

Meanwhile, Hallman’s mother has had her vaccine, and Hallman has had her dose too,

“If you have had your vaccine and she’s had hers and the other patients have had their vaccine then why aren’t you allowed in there?” I asked.

“I have no idea. I guess we are waiting on the people to say we can open back up,” she said.

The CDC updated its guidelines for visitation this week, stating any visitor exposed to someone with COVID or shows signs of the virus will not be allowed to visit their loved one regardless of vaccination status.

Nursing homes can continue to prohibit indoor visitation if a county’s positivity rate is above ten percent as well.

PepperHill in Aiken County is still not allowing indoor visitation, and Aiken County’s positivity rate dropped below ten percent nine days ago.

And Richmond County has been below ten percent for the past 17 days, but we found some nursing homes still are not offering indoor or even outdoor visits like the Pruitt facilities.

A check of Pruitt’s website shows visitation status as pending, so we asked about it.

Pruitt’s representatives wrote they require “a county positivity rate of less than 10% for the prior 14 days. Also, some of the centers still are accepting COVID-19 patient admissions so this is a factor to consider as well.”

Additionally, they also told us they base their policy off of staffing levels another recommendation made by CMS to reopen.

Regardless of a county’s positivity rate or an outbreak or vaccination status, CMS updated guidelines state: indoor compassionate care visits should be permitted at all times.

CMS further defines compassionate care visits as not only visits during end of life but also visits from family when a resident is destressed or struggling with their environment.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control sent this memo out in November to long term care facilities:

“Facilities who fail to comply with visitation requirements and do not have a reasonable cause in doing so are in violation of residents’ rights and can be subject to a civil penalty.”

Dr. Mark Newton represents the 123 House District here in the Augusta area. He is a co-sponsor of House Bill 290. The bill prohibits hospitals and nursing homes from instituting any policy that limits visitation. Now the bill moves to the Senate for a vote.

With all of these changes in guidelines and even legislation, Hallman says all she can do is hold onto hope.

“She doesn’t understand it. That is a blessing to us she isn’t one that has a good mind and thinks we just left her because we would never do that- never do that.”

And hope that soon a pane of glass will no longer separate her from her mother.

“I just tell her to hang on. I am coming.”

South Carolina is updating visitation status in area nursing homes which you can find online on DHEC’s website.

However, Georgia does not do that, so you need to talk to the nursing home itself to get the latest policy on visiting your loved one.

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