Texas Health and Human Services announced last week it would expand visitation at long-term care facilities to essential caregivers.
An essential caregiver can be a family member, friend or someone else who helps take care of the individual.
The state said under the new rules, residents can designate up to two essential family caregivers to go inside a facility for a scheduled visit.
“It is critical to the health of residents that we provide opportunities wherever possible for families to reunite while continuing to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of disease,” HHS Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young said in a statement. “Safely visiting with family and friends is the best medicine and most reassuring act we can provide for our most fragile Texans during these challenging times.”
The new guidelines state only one caregiver can go in at a time. They must complete training about personal protective equipment and safety guidelines before entering. They also have to test negative for COVID-19 within 14 days of the scheduled visit.
That's how Stephanie Kirby was able to visit her son, Petre, at the Denton State Supported Living Center.
"As long as this can never happen again. That's always a little fear in the back of my mind that. What if something happens and visitations are shut down again. But I've just tried to put that out of my mind," said Kirby, who saw her son last Friday.
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She's no longer counting the days after to waiting 197 days to visit him in his room at the Denton State Supported Living Center.
Petre, who is non-verbal and functions at the level of a 3-year-old, according to Kirby, has lived there for three years.
Before the pandemic, she would visit her son, whom she adopted at a young age, multiple times a week.
Kirby said she had already taken her COVID-19 test and the safety course in preparation for the notification that she could visit Petre, which she received on Friday.
"I got the email saying it's today, and I just rushed like crazy," said Kirby, who lives about an hour away from the Denton State Supported Living Center.
She had envisioned what it would be like to see Petre in his room, but she didn't want to be too animated because he can get overstimulated.
She brought his usual favorites, which included an ICEE.
"So I wanted to be very low key and calm, and inside I just wanted to jump up and down and pick him up and swing him around and hug him and kiss him but I just decided to sit down and say, 'Hey, Petre what are you doing?' and of course I hugged him and kissed him through my mask and my shield, but that's OK, and he started making his happy noises," Kirby said.
These new guidelines are considered a "victory" for the group Texas Caregivers for Compromise. It's a Facebook group made up of Texans from across the state who have advocated through petitions and media for the state to allow essential caregivers inside nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
"It's definitely a victory and if you look at the guidelines that HHSC put out actually contains a lot of the things that we put in our proposal," said Mary Nichols, who created the group.
Her mother is in a nursing home and Nichols just learned that thanks to the new guidelines, she may be able to visit her mother this week.
But not everyone has been as fortunate. Nichols said the new guidelines were a new concept for facilities.
"There's a huge learning curve that is taking place right now, primarily because not only are these guidelines brand new, but the concept of an essential caregiver itself is brand new. Facilities are needing to learn the rules, put us in place and then in policies," Nichols said.
She said the state is offering multiple educational webinars for facilities to learn the rules.
"Texas Health and Human Services is making every effort to get the information out to facilities, but I think there is still a drastic learning curve and a profound lack of understanding about how these guidelines are supposed to work. I don't think facilities understand yet the whole concept of what an essential caregiver is supposed to be," said Nichols, alluding to the fact that an essential caregiver is not just a therapist or hospice aide, but includes family.
"I just think that family members are going to need to be patient and cooperative and give facilities an opportunity to work through this. I also would like facilities to try not to be overly restrictive," Nichols said. "If you have a facility that has 60 bed-bound residents and they're only allowing three visitors a day, you could potentially have one visitor for resident once every four weeks. So I would encourage facilities to be as flexible as possible, but I would also encourage family members to be as patient and as cooperative as possible because this is new for everybody."
To read the guidelines click here