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Florida long-term care residents can enjoy family visits, complete with hugs

Federal and state restrictions loosened this month to allow more normal visitation after more than a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns
On July 17, 2020, Margaret Choinacki, 87, who has no other family members left because her husband and daughter have died, blows kisses to her friend Frances Reaves during a drive-by visit at Miami Jewish Health in Miami.
On July 17, 2020, Margaret Choinacki, 87, who has no other family members left because her husband and daughter have died, blows kisses to her friend Frances Reaves during a drive-by visit at Miami Jewish Health in Miami. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Mar. 24, 2021|Updated Mar. 25, 2021

The state Agency for Health Care Administration announced on Tuesday that it was removing restrictions on residents of long-term care who want to visit with their loved ones.

The move came more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to close their doors to the outside world. The state restrictions were put in place in March 2020, with the goal of keeping the disease out of care centers, and were loosened later in the year to allow socially distant visits from loved ones.

For many residents and their families, this news means everything, said Louise Merrick, administrator of Gulf Shore Care Center, a nursing home in Pinellas Park. Residents had been making the best of the pandemic-induced lockdown with window visits, phone calls and FaceTime.

“None of that is the same as holding the hand of your loved one,” Merrick said.

Limiting visitation has helped keep residents safe, but isolation has left its toll on residents and their families, the state health care agency said in the release. “Moving forward, all long-term care facilities should strive to help alleviate the burden caused by separation of residents from their loved ones.”

Nursing homes must adhere to revised federal visitation guidelines and “core principles of infection prevention,” according to the release. Other long-term care centers must follow state and federal recommendations and “industry best practices for visitation, infection prevention and the screening and triage of everyone entering a facility for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.”

This week’s changes follow guidance issued March 10 by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that nursing homes should permit “responsible indoor visitation at all times for all residents,” the Tampa Bay Times previously reported. The move comes after millions of coronavirus vaccines have been administered to residents and staff of these facilities.

The federal guidance still limits visitation for the following nursing home residents: those who are unvaccinated and live in a county with a coronavirus positivity rate greater than 10 percent or in a home where less than 70 percent of residents are fully vaccinated; those who are infected with COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status; and those who are in quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.

The guidance also states that “compassionate care” visits for those whose health has declined should always be allowed, regardless of vaccination status.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration cited a 90 percent decline in coronavirus cases among residents and staff in the past 60 days. In addition, “current COVID-19 long-term care cases represent less than 1 percent of residents and staff,” according to the release.

Coronavirus cases have dropped in Florida’s long-term care centers since a peak in January, with 358 resident cases out of 138,806 residents as of March 23, down from 3,651 cases on Jan. 17, according to the Florida Department of Health.

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Florida’s long-term care centers have been waiting to welcome residents’ families and friends back into facilities, said Kristen Knapp, spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, an industry group representing nursing homes.

Rolling back visitation restrictions is a large step toward normalcy for facilities, said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, which advocates for long-term care residents.

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