Tennessee to relax visitation rules at nursing homes, other senior living facilities

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Life Care Center of Athens is seen on Monday, May 4, 2020 in Athens, Tenn.

Tennesseans who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities could be reunited with their loved ones in person as soon as Oct. 1, according to new guidelines from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Facilities that have gone at least 14 days with no new COVID-19 cases among residents or staff members will be allowed to offer outdoor or limited indoor visitation with residents starting next month. Participants must follow strict infection control measures, including wearing masks, physical distancing, environmental disinfection and in some instances, testing of visitors, according to the guidelines.

If a facility reports no new cases for 28 days, it will be allowed to offer an "essential caregiver program" - meaning designated individuals may visit frequently to assist residents with daily activities, such as feeding, bathing and dressing.

If new COVID-19 infections emerge among residents or staff, facilities must reinstate strict visitation guidelines until no more new cases occur for at least 14 days.

"The physical health of our long-term care residents has been the top priority for our administration during this response. Our persistent and multifaceted efforts within our long-term care facilities appear to be paying off," Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news conference on Thursday.

Most senior living facilities in Tennessee have been closed to visitors with few exceptions since the coronavirus pandemic began, forcing residents to communicate with friends and family either by phone, electronic devices or through a closed window.

Gov. Bill Lee relaxed some visitation restrictions in June, but new COVID-19 cases were surging at the time, and many facilities were unable to meet the criteria.

Although strict visitation policies were implemented to protect seniors - who are especially vulnerable to serious COVID-19 illness and death - they're also seen as a source of many negative consequences, such as increased loneliness, depression, isolation and physical and cognitive decline in residents.

"People don't just suffer from coronavirus, there are a lot of other medical issues that can develop," Dr. Alycia Cleinman, a geriatrician at the CHI Memorial Center for Healthy Aging, said in June.

The new guidelines also include relaxed restrictions for resident interactions within long-term care facilities. These include resumption of communal dining, therapeutic and social activities and visits by non-health care personnel, such as barbers and beauticians.

As with expanded visitation, these activities must follow diligent infection control protocols and will only be allowed for residents who do not have COVID-19 in facilities that have had no new cases in at least 14 days.

Piercey said the decision to relax visitation and activity guidelines at long-term care facilities is based on input from stakeholders, including AARP, Tennessee Health Care Association and the Tennessee Hospital Association, as well as COVID-19 data monitored by the department of health. The move could be dialed back if the pandemic worsens, she said.

"Undoubtedly, the strict measures have saved dozens - if not hundreds - of lives," Piercey said. "But that has come at the expense of valuable time spent with loved ones, many of whom are in their twilight years. I'm proud to announce today that the wait is over. It's time to reunite residents and families in a safe and disciplined manner so we can better balance the physical and emotional needs of our older Tennesseans."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.