Sometime this week you’ll find out when you can finally visit grandma in the nursing home or your uncle who lives in assisted living.
That’s because these facilities are required to have written plans in place by the end of the week, Sept. 4, for how and when they will once again allow face-to-face visits with their residents. In most cases, no visits have been permitted since the COVID-19 emergency was declared in March.
In Arizona’s counties currently listed as having a “minimal” or “moderate” chance of coronavirus spread — nine at last count, including Pima County — the rules require all congregate care settings to offer limited outdoor visitation. Screening of visitors for symptoms, and wearing of cloth masks, will be required.
There is a mandate for 6 feet of distance between residents and visitors, so there won’t be hand holding.
There is a second option for anywhere in the state, regardless of how widespread its viral infection. Facilities there can allow in-person visits from anyone who presents results of a test taken within the last 48 hours showing a negative result for COVID-19, if that person signs a form saying he or she has been isolated since and is free of symptoms.
Taking that test may be a hurdle. But it’s one worth pursuing, said Dana Kennedy, state director of AARP.
“Let’s face it: In Arizona right now it’s really hot,” she said. “So that outdoor visit may not be safe.”
There are other advantages, as well, for visitors who present a negative COVID-19 test.
“If the person lives in a private residence, they could actually go into their residence and visit with them for 15 minutes,” Kennedy said. “And then they’re supposed to move to a congregate setting after that 15 minutes.”
But at that point, she said, “they can stay and visit as long as they like.”
“This was something that was really important to families,” said Christina Corieri, the health care policy advisor to Gov. Doug Ducey.
“They wanted to be able to see the individual’s personal living space, assess what the situation looks like,” she said. Then, after getting that look around, family members can continue their visit in whatever area is designated for getting together.
Kennedy pushed the governor to form the special task force to create standards for visitation, even as the virus remains active in Arizona.
There have been options for maintaining some type of contact, with facilities setting up phone calls and, often, video chats with family. Residents whose rooms have first-floor windows facing out to the street also had the chance to see their relatives, albeit through closed glass.
But there are limits to that.
“People are dying of loneliness and isolation,” Kennedy said.
Moreover, “people with some form of dementia, they may not understand why their loved one is not visiting them,” she said.
Plus, there’s the fact that the shutdown of visits occurred pretty much overnight.
“Families didn’t get enough closure,” she said. “So I think this (upcoming change) is really meaningful.”
With no end to the virus in sight — and no clear deadline for when residents and families would be able to see each other again — Kennedy said it became crucial to come up with some interim solution.
The task force’s final plan isn’t as simple as Kennedy had hoped the process would be. She said families will still need to “jump through a few hoops” to get visitation.
“But they’re all reasonable requests if you want to see your loved one during the middle of a pandemic,” Kennedy said.
Corieri said there are limits. “You couldn’t necessarily walk in at 1 in the morning,” she said.
Facilities can limit not only the times visits will be allowed but also how long they can last and how many people can visit on any given day, Corieri said.
And even in cases where the visitor produces a negative test result for COVID-19, Corieri said there is still a requirement for “minimal contact.”
As to whether potential visitors will be able to get test results back within 48 hours, Corieri said Sonora Quest says it can get results turned around within 24 hours. Ditto, she said, at Arizona State University, which is offering saliva tests.
At the University of Arizona there are tests available for antibodies. But these are being promoted for health-care workers, first responders and other employees considered at high risk for exposure to the virus.
If it turns out the 48-hour turnaround requirement for tests is too aggressive, Corieri said the task force remains active and can consider modifications.
Overall, she said the governor supports the plan.
“We think that these guidelines offer a safe way to reopen visitation in these facilities while still protecting the residents, and reuniting these families who we know that personal contact is so important to,” Corieri said.
“If these guidelines need tweaking we will continue to be open to it,” she said. “That is why we have another meeting of the task force scheduled in less than three weeks so that we can have that open feedback loop to hear how things are going and where we can continually improve.”