Want to visit loved ones in nursing homes? Here's what you need to know

Caring for the elderly
Among those who’ve died in the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota, some 80 percent were residents of long-term care facilities. On Thursday, state health officials issued guidance for outdoor visits at long-term care facilities, in addition to earlier guidelines on window visits.
John Moore | Getty Images file

For the first time in months, many Minnesotans in nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be able to see visitors face to face — at least with masks on.

The Minnesota Department of Health says these settings may now offer outdoor visits and through open windows.

Coronavirus infections have led to the deaths of 1,064 Minnesotans living closer together in those facilities where many have preexisting health issues. Staff have also fallen ill amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state has tried to implement restrictions to slow spread of the virus, including limiting visitors in all but end-of-life situations at nursing homes.

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The new guidance was made public Thursday. Facilities are allowed to implement them immediately, though they must follow strict guidelines. Residents positive for COVID-19, or who have symptoms, or are in quarantine may not take part in visits. 

What to know if you are visiting:

  • You'll be screened for COVID-19 symptoms

  • You must use an alcohol-based rub on your hands as you enter and exit the outdoor area 

  • Everyone must wear masks

  • Maintain at least 6 feet of distance, including children; no touching

  • Visits through open windows are allowed with proper distancing and masks are required

Before allowing outdoor visitation, long-term care centers must:

  • Establish a schedule of visiting hours

  • Have staff members present to help residents and wipe down visitor areas

  • Outdoor areas must be accessible without visitors having to enter the facility

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the move addresses the isolation many elderly people are feeling.

“We know that visitor restrictions, while well-intended to protect residents from infection, have been extremely challenging for residents and families, including so many of us, over these last several months,” she said.

Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, an association representing nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, said she understands the desire for families and friends to unite, even while the pandemic claims lives.

“We do have the sense that there's this pent up need,” Cullen said. “We don't want family members rushing the whole family to hug their loved one after all of these months of being so very careful. So, we're urging continued patience as we look at this.”

Cullen said not all facilities will be able to comply with the guidelines depending on how outdoor spaces are configured, or they may not have enough staff to screen and monitor visitors.

“We want folks to know that everyone wants the same thing,” she said. “But it's not going to be a flip of the switch overnight. It's going to take folks time to set up what they need to get set up. And family members are strongly encouraged to learn the rules to that. They've got to wear face masks. And if they feel sick, please don't come.”

Along those lines, Malcolm said that preventing infection is still paramount.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is very serious and very threatening to long-term care residents and that many safety restrictions are going to need to remain in place for quite some time,” Malcolm said. “But we also understand the need to balance health in the larger sense and psychosocial well-being with these restrictions.”

Cullen warned that a back to normal scenario is not close.

“I continue to tell people we will never go back to where we were,” she said. “Unless we have a vaccine and we have herd immunity … we're not going to go back to where we were.”