Citing increasing vaccination rates, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that the state’s nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care sites can reopen their doors for visits.
Indoor visits are now allowed if a resident or visitor is fully vaccinated, Inslee said at Thursday’s news conference in Olympia.
The announcement was welcome news for the state’s 70,000 residents of 4,000 long-term care facilities, which have been the hardest hit – and locked down the tightest – since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities banned visitors soon after outbreaks were reported in the Seattle area, and residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities largely remained confined to their rooms for most of the year.
“It’s long overdue,” said Deb Murphy, president and CEO of LeadingAge Washington, an advocacy organization that represents nonprofit nursing homes. “The need for hugs and caring touch between vaccinated residents with loved ones is critically important to their emotional well-being.”
Last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said facilities should allow indoor visits for all nursing home residents, regardless of whether the resident or the visitor is vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s also OK for a visitor to hug or touch a resident if the resident has been fully vaccinated, CMS said in its new guidance in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This guidance, however, does not change individual states’ restrictions.
Nearly all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have received both doses of the vaccine through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. Adult family homes have received shots through the federal partnerships and through door-to-door efforts from health districts and fire departments.
Washington previously had a four-phase plan for facilities to open their doors, and indoor visits were in the third and fourth phase, which required counties to have 25 or fewer new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents within a two-week span. Six counties currently meet the criteria.
COVID-19 has been especially deadly in the state’s long-term care facilities. Long-term care residents account for about 1% of the state’s population, but about 49% of deaths in the state attributable to COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.
Across the state, 143 facilities have at least one active case of COVID-19 among residents or state, which is the lowest number in at least six months, according to Department of Social and Health Services data. At the peak in December, nearly 600 facilities reported at least one active infection. To be taken off the list, facilities have to go 28 days without a positive test.
As doors open, residents and their loved ones will have to grapple with the effects of a roughly year-long lockdown that left those inside the buildings vulnerable to the trauma of social isolation. Long-term care workers reported higher rates of residents failing to thrive, characterized by weight loss, lack of appetite, inactivity and declining far faster than they would have otherwise. One employee described residents as “dying of a broken heart.”
For residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia, a lack of visits and decrease in mental stimulation may have accelerated cognitive decline that in some cases may be irreversible. In 2020, 500 more Washington residents died of Alzheimer’s or dementia than expected based on previous years, according to an analysis by the Alzheimer’s Association, which is 10% higher than normal. A number of factors related to the pandemic could have led to these “excess deaths,” according to the association.