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Operators need more flexible federal guidance regarding visitor access to nursing homes to protect their facilities during community COVID-19 surges without fear of falling out of compliance.  

“We saw firsthand the devastating impact visitor restrictions had on our residents and families, so we strongly support allowing visitors,” the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living said in a statement to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News on Thursday. 

“Especially during this surge, it is important to employ common-sense policies like requiring masks, testing, and vaccination to keep our residents safe,” the organization added. “We must carefully balance the risks to our vulnerable residents with the need to ensure they are able to see their loved ones.”

Nursing homes must allow visitation for residents “at all times” under current guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS earlier this month reemphasized that providers can only close off visitor access in “very limited and rare exceptions.”

At the same time, several states are now requiring nursing home visitors to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test before entering a facility. Connecticut and Maryland are the latest examples. Such state rules are making it difficult for providers to comply with the federal government’s strict visitation policy. 

“Our concern about CMS guidance is that the absolute, unconditional language may pose a risk to nursing homes and their residents, placing skilled nursing facilities in precarious situations when outbreaks occur,” LeadingAge said in a statement to McKnight’s

The organization added that it seems “counterintuitive and potentially dangerous” to limit facilities’ ability to temporarily restrict access to the building when an outbreak has occurred in the facility or surrounding neighborhood. A spokeswoman also said that the organization doesn’t want a return to lockdowns. 

“We urge CMS to allow providers flexibility to place temporary visitation restrictions in nursing homes to protect resident safety and maintain proper infection control,” a spokeswoman said. “We understand the importance of visitation for older adults in long-term care communities.” 

Resident advocates said that it’s equally important to ensure residents can see family members and friends, who may also support residents’ care needs. 

“The traumatic decline in residents’ condition that occurred during the facility shut-downs was extremely tragic and cannot be allowed to happen again. We’ve got to ensure safe visitation,” Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, told McKnight’s Thursday.  “If testing or mask wearing, for example, are going to be required for visitation, then tests or supplies must be made available at the facility, and at no cost to the family member or visitor.” 

“The federal and state governments must ensure the availability of supplies and hold facilities accountable for ensuring that infection prevention protocols are implemented and followed by all who enter the facility,” she added.