Long-term care facilities should reconsider their restrictive visitation policies aimed at ensuring the well-being of residents during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, according to several experts.  

“Keeping the doors shut is harmful to the health of residents. Good policy demands more nuanced thinking about how some visitors contribute to their safety,” health care policy expert and Harvard professor David Grabowski, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania physician Jason Karlawish, MD, and law professor Allison Koffman, argued in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Monday.

McKnight's Long-Term Care News, December 2018, Resident Care, David Grabowski
David Grabowski, Ph.D.

In mid-March, federal health officials directed nursing homes to prohibit most visitor access from their facilities in response to COVID-19. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in May released guidelines that called on nursing homes to meet testing and infection control standards before moving toward reopening.

The experts argued in their Post commentary that at the time it was issued, the strategy made sense due to the uncertainty about the disease’s transmission, but more has been learned since then. Facilities, especially in areas where the number of cases is steady or decreasing, should now look to reconsider visitation rules to allow access to what they called “essential care partners.” 

“The harm of keeping essential care partners out can itself be a great threat to well-being, as many families have learned,” they wrote. “The risks of visits can be minimized in these controlled situations, as we know more now about the spread of COVID-19. And family and friends will likely be the most vigilant of anyone in protecting their loved ones from exposure.”

Essential care partners can be made subject to the same COVID-19 related policies as employees, they argued. Facilities could also consider staggering their visits, limiting where they can be  and require them to submit to testing, temperature checks and wearing masks. 

They added that allowing such visits also could save staff time by reducing phone calls from worried family members and adding “more hands” to help with basic care. 

“It is understandable that regulators and nursing home operators want to do everything possible to keep COVID-19 out,” they concluded. “But blanket visitation bans fail to capture how some friends and family are critical to good care. These benefits are worth the low risk posed by well-monitored visits.”