Activists say recent changes to visitation rules in state-assisted living facilities are welcome, but far from enough.
Since March, when Gov. Greg Abbott began to issue executive orders in light of the Chinese coronavirus, he also largely barred residents in nursing homes and other state-assisted living facilities from visitation with their family members.
Texas Scorecard has highlighted several of these stories over the past week, ranging from a mother of a special-needs child who has not seen her son since March 13 to a woman pleading to be with her elderly husband again while they are both still alive.
These citizens, and countless others, have now caught the attention of state lawmakers. Fifty-two members of the Texas Legislature recently signed a letter asking the head of Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission to “immediately move forward and put a plan into action to allow limited family visitations inside their facilities.”
Despite their calls, on July 30, Abbott instead extended his ban.
Last Thursday, however, Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission announced they would permit “limited visitation at nursing and long-term care facilities.”
The new rules are limited, indeed. Staff must be tested weekly, there must be no confirmed positive case of COVID within 14 days, and the facility must be “adequately staffed” to handle visitation.
These limitations place significant challenges on both large and small facilities. Larger facilities employ hundreds, making the absence of positive tests for two weeks difficult to attain, while smaller facilities may claim they are not “adequately staffed” to implement the new visitation guidelines.
Additionally, visitation in nursing homes will be limited to outdoors only, a significant barrier for bed-ridden residents or those who cannot tolerate the scorching Texas heat. In other long-term care facilities, plexiglass must be used as a “safety barrier.”
Any kind of physical contact between residents and visitors is strictly prohibited.
Texas Caregivers for Compromise, a group of Texans who have experienced the pain of these visitation restrictions firsthand, held a rally on Saturday in front of the Texas Capitol in which organizer Mary Nichols called the new guidelines “unattainable.”
“The rules [HHSC] passed the other day are not helping very many people. They will help a few. They still do not let in legal, court-appointed guardians or people with power of attorney,” Nichols, whose mother is currently in a nursing home, told the crowd.
“On March 13, Gov. Abbott assured me that I would never again see my mother alive. If I lose my mother tomorrow, I am not going away,” Nichols added.
Several of those in attendance took turns sharing their stories and pleading for the governor and state officials to allow at least one designated caregiver to be given the ability to visit their loved ones, not unlike a member of the facility’s staff.
One pair of attendees, newlyweds Carlie and Travis, decided to get married at her father’s nursing home in February so he could escort her down the aisle.
“On February 3, 2020, I gave him my last hug for 189 days now,” she said. Recently, they have been able to communicate over video chat, a medium that comes with its own set of challenges.
“When he realized that we weren’t physically there, because his mind is so gone that he thought we were there, he started crying because that’s how badly he wants a hug.”
“My mother spent 11 months in a nursing home. If it had been during this time, she wouldn’t have survived a single month,” attendee Mike Openshaw told the crowd. “It’s not their right to shorten the lives of our loved ones, because that is what is going on right now.”
Fran Rhodes, president of True Texas Project, implored the crowd to keep the pressure up, even on those lawmakers who signed onto the letter asking for increased visitation.
“It’s not enough. And they’re going to think that it is because … they were all on Facebook on Friday, saying, ‘Yay! Look at us, we did it!’” said Rhodes. “Well, they didn’t do it. And you guys need to remind them of that every day, as well as the governor.”
“For some of you, this is your first time trying to interact with legislators,” she added. “Don’t be intimidated by them; they work for you, not the other way around. Keep up the pressure, and contact them every day.”