Vaccinated Texas nursing home residents can now hug their families and receive more visitors after a year of isolation

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After a year of isolation from loved ones and lack of physical contact with their families in some cases, Texas nursing home residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are now allowed unlimited hugs and visits from their loved ones as long as the facility permits it, under new rules announced Tuesday by state health officials.

The rule change is effective immediately.

“Nothing can replace a hug and a smile from a loved one, and we anticipate many happy reunions,” said Becky Anderson, chief clinical officer for Focused Post Acute Care Partners, which runs 31 facilities in Texas.

The new rule also applies to residents of assisted living centers and other long-term care facilities.

There are about 1,200 nursing homes in Texas with about 90,000 residents, according to population estimates and state numbers. There are about 2,000 assisted living facilities in Texas, officials said. Nearly 9,000 nursing home residents have died of COVID-related causes, accounting for some 20% of all Texas coronavirus deaths, according to state data.

“Safely visiting with family and friends is vital to the mental health and well-being of long-term care residents,” Victoria Ford, chief policy and regulatory officer for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said in a statement. “We are so pleased these new rules will allow residents to enjoy in-person visits with a wider circle of loved ones.”

For the last few months, nursing homes that had COVID-19 cases identified in the building outside of areas for sick residents could only allow designated essential caregivers to visit for limited times after training and screening. Birthday parties and holiday celebrations took place largely through windows and over video calls.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott shut down visitation in mid-March in an attempt to keep the coronavirus out of the facilities and away from those most likely to die from the virus. In early August, the state eased restrictions for nursing facilities that don’t have any active COVID-19 cases among residents or confirmed cases among staff in the previous two weeks in the areas of the building where COVID-19 negative residents live.

Touching, however, was only allowed for essential caregiver visits and end-of-life visits. Social distancing and other protocols had to remain in place.

Under new rules, nursing homes may now allow personal contact, outdoor visitation even if there is an outbreak at the facility, unlimited time on visits, and unlimited end-of-life visits.

Facilities no longer have to request visitation approval from the state or limit indoor visitation to designated areas with barriers, the new rules say.

The new rules will not only benefit residents but also the employees who worked hard to fill the void left by the restrictions, Anderson said.

“Focused Care appreciates the emotional impact lifting visitation restrictions will have on our residents and team members as well, many of whom have remained the conduit between our vulnerable seniors and their family members over this last year,” she said.

Anderson said she’s hopeful state officials will continue to look for safe ways to relax the remaining restrictions.

“Providing skilled nursing care and short-term rehab throughout a raging pandemic has been challenging but we have proven it can be done as safely as possible when safeguards are in place and mitigation measures followed,” she said. “We are hopeful that as many of these restrictions are modified and some disappear altogether, we as a community, both inside and outside the walls of our Focused Care buildings, continue to look out for the welfare of those we love and strive to protect.”