A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward 

Nursing home policies in New York State have been under the microscope throughout the COVD-19 pandemic and a number of significant concerns remain.

Back in July, after months of silence and inaction, Democrats finally heeded the call to hold legislative hearings.  Unfortunately, the Senate Investigations Committee refused to issue even a single subpoena to compel documents and testimony from the Cuomo administration and Department of Health Commissioner Zucker.

While Commissioner Zucker took part in one hearing, he failed to answer a number of questions and did not provide accurate facts and figures regarding the number of nursing home residents who passed away during the pandemic.  The commissioner avoided a second hearing entirely.  The lack of transparency is appalling and certainly, not what grieving families deserve.

One major concern the commissioner was questioned on during the hearing centered on nursing home visitation polices.  Loved ones and facility staff who testified at the hearings discussed the negative and severe physical and mental health impacts the lack of visitation was having on residents.  The testimony was heartbreaking in many instances.

For months, all visits to nursing homes were prohibited.  Then in July, limited visitations were finally allowed as long as a number of conditions were met.  Unfortunately, the extremely stringent guidelines still made it nearly impossible for family members to visit their loved ones, continuing the isolation for many.  Finally, after repeated pleas, the guidelines were updated on September 15.  However, there are still major roadblocks in place.

Under the altered guidelines from the Department of Health, nursing homes are allowing limited visitation to resume for facilities that have been without COVID-19 for at last 14 days. That is down from the previous rule of 28 days, a benchmark that most facilities in the state were unable to reach. The Department of Health boasted that the new rule would open limited visitation to about 500 of the state’s over 600 facilities.

However, here’s the rub, the new guidelines include a major hurdle – in implementing the new guidance, the state also added a new layer of rules, prohibiting those under 18 from visiting and requiring visitors to have a negative COVID-19 test result within 7 days of their visit even if the visit is to be safely distanced outdoors. The testing requirement is particularly onerous for loved ones as result times across the state vary significantly, with many New Yorkers currently waiting 10 days or more to receive their test results.

Immediately upon the release of the new guidelines, family members began contacting my office pointing out the problematic fine print.  Tests can be difficult to come by, there are many individuals who cannot afford them, and results take time to receive.  Many family members, who previously met with nursing home residents outdoors, were forced to cancel upcoming visits due to the new guidelines.

The health and well-being of nursing home residents must be a top priority.  However, we need to formulate a procedure that will allow safe visitations to occur.  We also know that a negative test from a week ago, or even a day ago, does not ensure protection for the residents or staff of a facility.

There is a rapid test available that can instantly alert a visitor and nursing home staff to a COVID positive result in a matter of minutes.  Access to this test for nursing home visitors would be a game-changer.  By utilizing the 15-minute test currently approved by the FDA, a visitor could be checked upon arrival to a nursing home and know almost immediately if it is safe to enter.

As one person who wrote me put it, “nursing home visits are essential for the elderly.  They are at the end of their lives.”  The Department of Health needs to step up and provide nursing homes with rapid tests so that visitors can safely visit their loved ones while adhering to the new mandates.