Advocates for people living in long-term care facilities met on Monday to discuss the need to maintain visitations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is a dire need," Mairead Painter, Connecticut Long-Term Care Ombudsman told NBC Connecticut. "These residents have been living what we lived in March, since then, without any real relief."
Painter is a member of the state's newly-formed Nursing Home and Assisted Living Oversight Working Group and serves as co-chair for the subcommittee on socialization, visitation and caregiver engagement.
According to the governor's office, the working group’s goal is to make recommendations on proposed legislation for the 2021 legislative session addressing lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The subcommittee on visitation met for the first time Monday and will meet once a week for the next six weeks. During the meeting, industry leaders and family members expressed concerns over the effects of isolation on residents in long-term care facilities.
“Were they necessary in order to keep COVID out due to testing concerns and PPE concerns?" Painter questioned during the meeting, referencing visitor restrictions put in place at the beginning of the pandemic. "Yes, maybe. However, we know that the impact has been so great to residents that we need to find a different way to do this."
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Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the CT Association of Health Care Facilities, agreed that the visitor restrictions put in place at the beginning of the pandemic were needed.
"That isn’t to say we have not learned a lot since March 9," said Barrett.
Barrett said that nursing homes can do a better job of utilizing technology to facilitate visitation.
Painter said that while technology works for some residents, it is not as effective for others.
"We really feel that every home should be doing everything they can in order to support visitation," said Painter.
It is a difficult balance to strike. Painter said that we have learned that visitor restrictions can have wide-reaching effects on mental health, but at the same time we have learned that once COVID gets into a nursing home, it is extremely hard to stop the spread.
Margaret Morelli, president of LeadingAge Connecticut, said that she is still hearing from a lot of residents who are afraid of the virus. She asked the subcommittee to keep that in mind during future meetings.
“No matter how open and how many indoor visits are going on, there is still a level of fear out there. People are afraid of this virus," said Morelli.
During future meetings, the subcommittee is planning on hearing from family members and residents themselves.
Painter said that she hopes the group can put forward recommendations that will balance the need to protect residents from the virus with the need to protect a resident's rights to visits.
"I hope we have a consensus of what is needed and how to offer protections and that balance of protecting social and emotional needs," said Painter.
As winter approaches and community COVID case numbers continue to increase, there will need to be out-of-the-box solutions. Painter said that homes are able to apply to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for outdoor tents to help with outdoor visits.
Painter's office has also purchased small projectors to help make virtual meetings feel more life-sized.
The current guidance on nursing home visitations can be found here.