Senior Advocates Worry Lifting Visitation Restrictions at Nursing Homes Could Be Dangerous

Senior advocacy nonprofit AARP speaks on the nursing home crisis in Texas

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Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in an interview last with KTAB-TV in Abilene that he plans to make an announcement soon that may clear the way for families to once again visit loved ones in senior living facilities.

"We expect to make an announcement in a week or two that will provide some way of having loved ones go into a nursing home and be able to physically see their family member," Abbott said, saying any approved method would use strategies that make sure COVID-19 wasn't being imported into nursing homes.

Abbott's office told NBC 5 Wednesday afternoon an announcement on visitations at retirement or nursing homes is not expected this week or next.

Senior advocates fear it may be too soon for that, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the state.

AARP is a nonprofit and non-partisan group advocating specifically for seniors. The group has been tracking numbers affecting residents of the nursing homes, senior living and long-term care facilities across Texas.

According to AARP’s data, there are 92,987 residents of senior living facilities in the state. Despite efforts to lock down these facilities and prohibit outside visitors, there are still 5,542 COVID-19 cases reported and nearly 1,000 deaths.

Unfortunately, those numbers are growing every day.

"Forty-five percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Texas come from nursing homes or assisted living facilities,” said Amanda Fredriksen, AARP Texas associate state director of advocacy. “It's clear this population is bearing the brunt of the impact of this virus."

Across the country, more than 50,000 COVID-19 deaths are coming from seniors inside these facilities.

Most recently Fredriksen's work has focused on improving the quality of care in Texas nursing homes and strengthening supports for unpaid family caregivers. In the last few months, she said many families are struggling to get information on what is happening inside facilities while others worry about staff and residents getting enough PPE.

"Staffing issues have been a big challenge and of course, isolation,” said Fredriksen.

Which is why they're pushing for more virtual visitation as an option until safer protocols are developed for in-person contact. National health experts predict a vaccine won’t be ready until 2021.

In the meantime, Fredriksen said federal leaders need to act now to prevent more deaths before easing visitation restrictions.

"We are looking for Congress to take action, we need a national solution,” she said.

Solutions include more PPE for both residents, daily reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and staff and a broader push for regular and continued testing for everyone inside senior living facilities.

"We haven't seen that yet, we've done one round of testing. But not ongoing testing,” said Fredriksen.

There's also talks on the federal level of granting COVID-19 protections to a number of groups in the healthcare industry, including senior living facilities. That would make them immune to lawsuits for things that happen during the pandemic, including neglect, abuse and mistreatment.

"It's just wrong. They need to be held accountable and that's something we need to keep an eye out for,” Fredriksen said.

In regards to immunity laws for senior facilities, AARP said Gov. Abbott has not taken any steps in that direction in Texas.

If you have a loved one or family member inside a nursing home, assisted living facility, and other long-term care facilities, AARP has a resource guide on its website.

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