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Nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Tennessee that have tested their staff and residents for COVID-19 and been free of any infections for the past month will be able to admit visitors again starting next Monday under new state guidelines.

Gov. Bill Lee, who has gradually reopened Tennessee's economy for more businesses to reopen and public activities to resume over the past month, announced the new visitation policy for long-term care facilities on Wednesday.

"From my own family experience, I know how heartbreakingly difficult and stressful it is to not see loved ones for weeks at a time," Gov. Bill Lee said in an announcement of the new rules. "Our family members, friends, and neighbors in long-term care are our most vulnerable Tennesseans. Even limited visitation options will bring relief and support for residents and visitors alike, as long as we can ensure everyone's well-being."

(READ MORE: 52 people test positive for COVID-19 at Rossville nursing home)

In the first two months since the coronavirus began claiming lives in the Chattanooga region in March, more than 40% of the fatalities involved residents of nursing homes. According to AARP, more than 38,000 nursing home residents and staff have died from COVID-19, representing over a third of the nation's known coronavirus deaths.

The new guidelines issued for Tennessee nursing homes will require visitors to undergo health screenings and make appointments before entering any facility and to wear masks and practice social distancing while inside such facilities.

(READ MORE: Sobering US nursing home death report as lockdowns ease)

"Our hope is to balance the need for social interaction at long-term care facilities with providing a safe environment for residents, staff, and visitors," said Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health. "We will monitor the implementation of this visitation plan closely, knowing we may need to revert to more protective measures if we start seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases at facilities."

Life Care Centers of America, the nation's largest privately owned nursing home chain which is headquartered in Cleveland, Tennessee, said Wednesday the company is still studying the guidelines to determine when it will allow visitors again at its Tennessee facilities.

(READ MORE: Life Care Athens reports residents are now free of COVID-19 after 14 deaths)

"At Life Care Centers of America, residents are – and have always been – our highest priority," said Jennifer Solomon, vice president of Life Care Centers of America's Eastern Division which includes Tennessee and five other states. "We are currently reviewing the governor's plan and will follow the direction of the Department of Health as we work to get all our testing completed, the first pre-requisite to allowing visits at our centers."

In late April, Gov. Lee ordered mass testing of all workers and patients at the state's 700 licensed nursing homes, which house about 70,000 persons across Tennessee. Not all of the nursing homes have completed the COVID-19 tests for all of their staff and workers, however.

 

Lee said that facilities that choose to re-open to visitors must first meet the following prerequisites:

* Testing of all staff and residents at least once, and compliance with applicable regulations regarding weekly staff re-testing.

* No new COVID-19 case in residents or staff members in the previous 28 days.

* Compliance with Board for Licensing Health Care Facilities regulations and infection control guidelines;

* Overall stability of the disease burden present in the community where the facility is located.

 

Long-term care facilities who meet the prerequisites and allow limited visitation must follow guidelines, including:

* Making appointments prior to visiting and limiting the duration of visits.

* Limiting the number of visitors per resident and daily visitors per facility.

* Enforcing visitor social distancing and mask requirements.

* Screening all visitors with symptom and temperature checks immediately upon facility entry.

 

Long-term care facilities may utilize three options for limited resident visitation to take place:

* In an outdoor setting, weather permitting;

* Using a visitation booth or protective barrier.

 

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