Iowa eases nursing home visitor limits amid coronavirus outbreak


For the country’s 1.4 million nursing home residents, lockdowns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have meant more isolation. Those who call Southern Pines home are still grappling with seeing loved ones only through window panes or screens. (July 17)

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Iowa officials moved Thursday to ease visitor restrictions at many nursing homes, where thousands of frail Iowans have been isolated since March because of the COVID-19 threat.

The new rules allow for indoor visits at nursing homes, especially in parts of the state with relatively low transmission of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has ripped through dozens of Iowa care facilities. Nursing home residents have accounted for 702 of Iowa’s 1,360 deaths from the disease, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported on its website Thursday.

Emma Jean Schrock, right, visits with her niece, Joyce Butler, through a window at the Pleasantview nursing home in Kalona. (Photo: Special to the Register)

The department said in a news release Thursday that the new rules balance coronavirus prevention efforts with residents’ social needs. “Nursing home residents derive value from the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they receive through visitation from family and friends,” the news release said. It said the changes in state rules follow new federal guidance on the issue.

Many nursing homes began setting up outdoor visits this summer, but such arrangements have become more difficult as autumn sets in.

The new state rules allow indoor visits at nursing homes in counties where less than 10% of people being tested for the virus are coming up positive. The guidance includes suggestions on how such visits can be handled safely, including the use of masks, distancing and hand-washing. It also says Plexiglas dividers may be used. 

In counties with higher positivity rates, nursing home visits should remain more limited, the new state guidance says. Even in those areas, they still can be arranged for certain circumstances, such as when a resident is near death; is struggling emotionally; or needs family encouragement to eat or drink. 

On Thursday, the state website listed 37 of Iowa’s 99 counties as having coronavirus positivity rates above 10%.

The federal government recently began requiring most Iowa nursing homes to test all staff members regularly to see if they’re unwittingly carrying the virus into the facilities. Whenever the staff testing uncovers a case, all residents in a facility also must be tested. The government sent rapid-testing equipment to most Iowa nursing homes to help them comply. 

Brent Willett, president of the Iowa Health Care Association, said the increased testing is a good thing, because it helps facility leaders snuff the virus before it spreads widely. He said the increased testing is a major reason why Iowa is seeing a spike in reported nursing home outbreaks. 

The health department website Thursday listed coronavirus outbreaks at 52 nursing homes, more than triple the number from mid-July. The state defines a nursing home outbreak as at least three residents testing positive for the virus. 

Willett’s group, which represents most Iowa nursing homes, applauded the new rules. “The IDPH visitation guidance released today goes a long way to create clarity for families on how and under what conditions they may now visit their loved ones in nursing homes,” he wrote in an email to the Des Moines Register. 

Willett said many nursing homes have been setting up special visiting areas inside their facilities, with barriers separating visitors from residents. The barriers can be equipped with speakers to help families and residents speak to each other. 

The new state guidance also spells out how nursing homes can bring barbers and beauticians back into their facilities safely. 

Other types of senior living facilities, such as assisted living centers, have faced less strict visitation rules because they cater to residents who aren’t as frail. But they also have been limiting visitors, and the new state guidance offers recommendations for how they should proceed now. 

Iowa has suffered one of the nation’s sharpest coronavirus epidemics recently. Last month, the White House coronavirus task force urged Iowa leaders to require people to wear face masks in public. Doing so could help protect nursing home residents by tamping down community spread of the virus, the federal experts said in a report to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Reynolds has rebuffed such suggestions, saying that although masks are helpful, mask mandates are unenforceable. 

Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-284-8449. 

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