HOUSTON – As some parts of the state have reopened, like stores, restaurants and bars, an entire part of Texas has remained locked down.
We’re not talking about prisons. For nearly five months, nursing homes have been restricting visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic and the high risk the virus poses to residents.
But family members have had enough. Thousands of people with loved ones in nursing homes across the state have joined a movement to ease visitation restrictions.
Kathy Harper, a Katy resident, can’t stop thinking about her 82-year old mother who is in a nursing home.
Older people, like Harper’s mother, need close, personal contact with their families to survive, Harper said.
‘Dying of loneliness’
“So they’re dying in there because they are dying of loneliness,” said Harper. “They’re absolutely dying of loneliness and nobody should have to go through that,” she added.
For nearly five months, tens of thousands of families have been dealing with the pain of not being able to touch or hug or even speak directly to their loved ones in nursing homes. They are separated by stringent rules handed down by Texas governor Greg Abbott.
Families like Harper's are forced to stand outside and peer through windows, their voices crackling over a cellphone.
No contact visits
Channel 2 Investigates tagged-along for a window visit between Harper and her mother.
“What would you like to see change during this mom?” asked Harper.
“I’d like it if we might have more freedom to meet with our families,” Gwynne, Harper’s mother, replied,
For Harper and her mother, these "no contact" visits have begun to take their toll.
"My biggest fear is that mom's just going to give up," said Harper.
For Harper, the worst part has been watching the doctors and support staff having contact with her mom, but she can’t.
“Why is he allowed to and I‘m not?” said Harper. “That’s my mother, that’s my mother and I should have the right.”
12,000 sign Texas petition for change
Many others feel the same way. Harper has found support on Facebook through a group called Texas Caregivers for Compromise - Because Isolation Kills, Too. Harper and more than 12,000 others have signed a petition pushing for changes in the rules governing families visiting loved ones at nursing homes.
Instead of allowing zero contact, they want the state to allow one family member per nursing home resident to be considered an essential caregiver, just like plumbers and electricians are considered essential to a nursing home. The essential caregiver would take the same precautions that caregivers at the facility follow.
55 state lawmakers sign joint letter
“We don’t intend to stand for this situation any longer,” said State Representative Scott Sanford, (R-McKinney).
Both a state representative and a minister, Sanford has written a letter backed by 54 other state legislators asking for the same change because he says heartbreak is killing these elderly residents.
“We need remedy soon because we are losing some of our very precious people,” said Sanford.
Considering easing visitation restrictions
Just this week, Channel 2 Investigates pressed Abbott during a live interview on whether he plans to change the rules that are keeping families apart.
“We do want to do it... and we are considering easing visitation restrictions and we’re developing some strategies to make sure that is going to be able to happen,” Abbott said. “We don’t want to replicate the disaster we saw in New York state that led to the deaths of so many people.”
Meanwhile, Christian Care Communities and Services in North Texas is offering family members paid jobs to work at their facilities just so they can visit their loved ones face to face.
“The benefit is that you see your loved one,” said Sabrina Porter, CEO. “You are assigned to the area where your relative is and we ask you to give care and services to other residents in that area as well.”
Brittni Evetts took a job at Hillside Medical Lodge in Gatesville, just so she could see her mom. After four months of not having contact with her mother, she recently applied to be a housekeeper at the facility. She put in an application and started working at the facility last week.
As for Harper, one terrifying thought that haunts her.
”You worry that [mom] will die in that place, all alone... and nobody should die alone,” she said.
The Texas Health and Human Services Committee will hold a webinar to talk about this topic Friday.
Saturday morning, a rally is planned in Austin to protest the visitation ban.