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'That is a huge blessing.' Gov. Abbott expands visitation options for nursing home facilities

Gov. Greg Abbott announced new visitation rules, which include essential caregiver visits starting Sep. 24.

AUSTIN, Texas — All eligible nursing home facilities in Texas will be allowed to offer essential caregiver visits on Sep. 24, Gov. Greg Abbott announced amid the coronavirus pandemic. This includes assisted living centers, state-supported living centers and other long-term care facilities. 

Abbott made the announcement during a Sept. 17 press conference to address the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"They must, however, comply with certain health protocols, and there must be no coronavirus outbreak," said Gov. Abbott.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) has updated those new protocols in its emergency rules here.

The rules state that residents can now designate up to two essential family caregivers. Those selected will receive training to allow them to safely go inside a facility for a scheduled visit, including the resident's room. Only one caregiver can visit a resident at a scheduled time and will not be required to maintain physical distancing. However, proper PPE must be used at all times and the caregiver must test negative for COVID-19 14 days before the visit. 

“It is critical to the health of residents that we provide opportunities wherever possible for families to reunite while continuing to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of disease,” said HHS Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young.

KVUE's Molly Oak spoke with Kim Westbrook about this announcement. Her father moved into an assisted-living facility in Wimberly in February.

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"I didn't realize the weight of what I was carrying until he said that a while ago and just the tears were overwhelming, to be honest with you," Westbrook said. "To think that, eventually, I'll get to go on a regular basis and be with him."

Westbrook said having family caregivers is a "huge blessing." 

She said her family has been lucky. Her father's room is on the first floor and has a window facing outside, so they've still been able to interact with him. But she said she knows not everyone has been as fortunate. 

"It’s very, very difficult to watch an older person sit alone for hours after hours. Their communication skills start to fail. Their ability to process information changes. And then you’ve got patients in these facilities who have dementia, and so it’s really confusing for those patients," said Westbrook, who said her heart goes out to those in that situation. 

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According to HHSC, the new emergency rules also allow approved nursing facilities to schedule an indoor visitation for general visitors who are not designated essential caregivers. Physical contact is not allowed and plexiglass safety barriers must be used. 

There are also new rules for long-term care facilities that serve residents without COVID-19 but also have dedicated COVID-19 isolation units. Those facilities will be eligible for outdoor and indoor general visitation with plexiglass barriers and only with residents who don't test positive for COVID-19. Facilities previously were required to be entirely COVID free to allow outdoor or indoor visitation.

Families for Better Care, a non-profit group that advocates for people living in long-term care facilities, said while it's important to get families reunited, it needs to be done safely. 

"There is no room for error when it comes to nursing homes and this virus. If they get one step wrong, you're talking multiple fatalities. We know this. They know this," said Brian Lee, the executive director. "So they have to get this right. They have to have the right precautions, the right safety measures in place to keep everyone safe."

Lee called for rapid molecular testing at each nursing home, which he said would be able to identify asymptomatic individuals.

For more information on these new rules and other COVID-19 information, visit the HHSC website

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