Nursing Home Coronavirus Rules Provoke Backlash

By: - April 10, 2020 12:00 am

Retirement home residents wave and cheer as a drive-by parade moves through their parking lot amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many states have limited nursing home visitors, but advocates worry some rules may be too strict. Prentice C. James/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

The coronavirus death toll has been staggering at long-term care and senior housing facilities.

At least 37 people died when the virus spread at a Washington state long-term care facility for seniors. There have been dozens of cases and at least 18 deaths at one Maryland nursing home. And at least seven people died at a Vermont rehabilitation center, one of several such clusters in the state that forced officials to change their tactics.

“Initially we were being reactive,” said Vermont Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan. “So if there was a case, we would talk to the nursing home, possibly go in, and help them think through how to prevent outbreaks.”

Vermont public health officials soon began helping nursing homes to screen residents and staff, restrict visitors, isolate residents and create coronavirus-only units.

“Now we’ve got plans all over the state,” Dolan added. “If we have a facility at risk like that we’ll be ready.”

As states have stepped in, they’ve adopted different strategies on releasing the names of affected facilities, restricting visitors and forcing facilities to take infected patients. Advocates worry that some of these new policies are harming the very patients they are intended to protect.

For example, states such as Massachusetts and Texas are citing patient health and safety in their refusal to release the names of facilities with positive cases. 

And some advocates argue that early federal guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) prompted some assisted-living facilities to limit transparency and visitor access. On March 13, CMS directed nursing homes to restrict group activities as well as visitors and nonessential workers.

As the coronavirus crisis continues, it’s unclear how long policies intended to be temporary will stay in effect. 

“What are we doing today that may be permanently abridging the rights of people in nursing home facilities?” said Elaine Ryan, AARP’s vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.