Vaccines haven’t cured loneliness in New York nursing homes

HERKIMER, NY – Vaccines have started saving lives in New York nursing homes, but they haven’t cured another crisis caused by the pandemic: loneliness.

Persistently high COVID-19 rates have closed the majority of government nursing homes to visitors, despite loose guidance intended to help reopen them.

Until this week, according to state and federal regulations, they could only accept visitors if they had no new infections in patients or staff for 14 days.

This mark was too difficult for most to reach. Just over half of the state’s 616 nursing homes were not approved for indoor visits in mid-March. This was the result of an analysis by the Associated Press using data from the US Centers for Medicaid and Medicare. That is the highest percentage of any state.

New York updated its visiting rules on Thursday so that visits can now resume under certain conditions, even if a resident or employee recently tested positive. But this relaxed standard may not clear the way for visits to many households struggling to keep the virus out.

The lack of visits has frustrated people like Debbie Barbano, who could only see her 69-year-old mother through a window in a nursing home in central New York.

“When that goal was last year it was like a bullet in your chest,” said Barbano. “She didn’t understand why I didn’t come. It was like leaving her. “

Under New York’s new guidelines, homes would still have to stop visiting after a resident or employee tested positive. However, they could potentially be resumed for some patients if a thorough round of additional testing revealed that the outbreak is restricted to only part of the facility.

However, it is unclear how exactly these guidelines will be applied and whether the change would mainly affect large houses with multiple buildings, floors or units with few staff or residents mixing between units.

Health Commissioner Howard Zucker justified the visit restrictions by pointing to a winter flood that infected 15,000 nursing home residents and killed at least 3,000 people.

The federal program to vaccinate nursing home residents has helped reduce COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths in nursing homes across the country. In New York, 41 care home residents died of COVID-19 in the second week of March, up from 382 in the week ended January 17.

With the nationwide reduction in infections, 80% of nursing homes nationally had doors open by mid-March, including the vast majority of nearly 1,200 facilities in California.

Infections in New York are decreasing faster in nursing home residents than in employees. Some workers have been reluctant to take the vaccine. And with New York City and its suburbs seeing spikes in some cases, the state’s data shows only 68% of nursing home residents and 51% of New York City workers have been vaccinated.

“Nursing homes have finally started to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Christopher Laxton, executive director of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Medicine, whose group is working to clarify new regulations from the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “But we are not out of the tunnel. We see the end of it. “

Meanwhile, some relatives are struggling to see loved ones.

Family members in New York and across the country who organized themselves on Facebook groups say their loved ones are losing weight, falling, cognitively losing weight, dying alone, and suffering from lack of attention. Federal and state guidelines allow compassionate care visits, but families in New York and elsewhere say nursing homes don’t always allow this.

Laura Corridi, a 56-year-old senior programmer in Hamlin, New York, drove an hour and a half on the weekends to stand outside her 93-year-old mother’s nursing home and yell at her through a window in the past year.

“She’s very angry at times,” said Corridi. “She will say, ‘It’s cold. You can’t be out there. ‘She starts crying, “Why don’t they let you in?” She doesn’t want me to stand in the cold. “

State lawmakers passed law earlier this year that allows nursing home residents to designate up to two caregivers to visit, even if a general visit isn’t allowed as long as they’re tested and follow other infection protocols.

However, Governor Andrew Cuomo has not yet signed the legislation and his office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he intended to do so. Cuomo has taken political heat over recent revelations that his government did not reveal the full number of nursing home residents who died during the height of the pandemic.

New York is one of at least 17 states where lawmakers are considering similar laws, according to the AP review.

But many New Yorkers with relatives in nursing homes say their loved ones can’t wait for companionship.

“You are dying now,” said Karen Costner from Greece, New York. “My mother loses her will to live every week. And I have to get in there now. “

Zucker told lawmakers last month that he was “very empathetic” with family members, but claimed the state’s hands were “tied” by federal guidance.

“Too many older people have been isolated, lonely, and scared,” said Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “Many people with cognitive disabilities are afraid of seeing everyone in masks and not seeing familiar people.”

But Caplan, whose mother died in a Massachusetts nursing home last year, said he still worries that not enough is being done to protect vulnerable residents. Employees should be vaccinated and visitors tested, he said.

“If the staff isn’t vaccinated, people who have family members should scream to be vaccinated,” Caplan said.

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