CORONAVIRUS

Iowa nursing homes reopen for visitors for first time in months

Despite growing case count, state public health paves way for reopening long-term care facilities

Aileen Emerson (left) selects a paint color from Ashley Gerlach, activity director, at The Gardens of Cedar Rapids on Mo
Aileen Emerson (left) selects a paint color from Ashley Gerlach, activity director, at The Gardens of Cedar Rapids on Monday, July 13, 2020. The care center will reopen to visitors with restrictions in place. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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After months of looking through a pane of glass, a Marion couple finally sat face to face with their daughter on Wednesday morning.

While they still had to remain physically distant, the ability to sit at the same table as a family member marked the first step away from the pandemic and toward a future where the pair could leave the senior living facility they’ve called home since December.

“I’ve been waiting for that to happen,” said Nancy Raim, a 79-year-old who lives with her husband, Rollie, at Summit Pointe Senior Living Facility in Marion.

Raim said they couldn’t hug or even be within six feet of their daughter Janelle Rickner, also of Marion, “but it was still great to see and talk to her without a window between us.”

“This is the hope that maybe eventually we’ll get out of here,” she said.

Late last month, the Iowa Department of Public Health revised its guidelines for long-term care facilities across Iowa on mitigation strategies against the novel coronavirus, relaxing their restrictions against visitors for the majority of residents.

That means for the first time in months, many local senior living centers and other long-term care facilities are preparing to host families on its property once again this week — a momentous occasion that indicates for some an end to an emotionally trying separation from loved ones.

“We think that the approach is balanced in weighing the priority of reuniting family members with their loved ones in long-term care with raised public health concerns around this population,” said Brent Willett, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities.

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“So we support it,” he said. “And we think it’s a very careful, step-by-step approach to reintroducing these visits.”

The Iowa Department of Health revised its 26-page guidance on the novel coronavirus pandemic on June 30, phasing out certain mitigation strategies that were put in place to keep the virus away from long-term care facilities — locations where some of the most vulnerable populations in the state live.

Long-term care facilities are allowed to host outdoor visits, open-window visits or visits using a “dedicated chat box” under phase one of the state public health department’s three-step approach.

The announcement sent some directors of local long-term care facilities working to put plans in place.

Many Linn County-based facilities are moving forward with their plans despite the fact that the number of new coronavirus cases locally and across the state are on the rise.

“Right now, I think while numbers are low and, while not seeing a vast increase in our area, it’s a good time to explore how to do this safely to make sure families can visit a little more often and a little more personally,” said Jenna Gardner, executive director of The Gardens of Cedar Rapids, which is planning to resume some in-person visits on Monday.

The phases identified in the state’s guidance are determined by metrics an individual facility meets, and not on the level of COVID-19 activity in the community where the facility is located, Linn County Public Health officials have pointed out.

For example, a long-term care facility can move to the second phase of reopening 14 days after the last positive or suspected case was identified.

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But supporters of the move said the strict supervision mandated by the Iowa Department of Public Health helps ensure the safety of residents within these facilities.

All visitors must be screened for symptoms before the visit, which are made by appointment only, and facilities are asked to maintain a log of all visitors for contact tracing purposes, in case someone becomes ill.

Still, the new policy is less strict than when the state health department first released this guidance in early March, which prohibited any visit unless deemed necessary by staff for compassionate care or end-of-life scenarios.

‘Loved and appreciated’

Family members have been eager to see relatives in person and some officials, with long-term care facilities say they have noticed a change in their own residents with the distance.

“We’ve had residents say this could be the last years of their life, and they want to live the best they can,” said Cheri Orcutt, executive director of Summit Pointe.

Officials with Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids — the site of one of the state’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks at a long-term care facility, with more than 100 infections among residents and staff — did not respond to The Gazette’s inquiries.

But officials have told residents’ families they are pursuing a return to in-person visits.

Roberta Maas, of Cedar Rapids, said she was told they did not have a timeline at this point, but was told by officials they hope to establish outdoor visits by appointment only.

Maas relayed to The Gazette earlier this week that she told Heritage officials she was eager to see her 85-year-old mother, Unita Schliemann, who tested positive for the virus back in April, in person.

Conducting visits through a window or over a phone for the past several weeks has been difficult for the family, Maas said. She can’t recall how long it’s been since she’s hugged her mother.

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“I’m not even sure how long it’s been,” Maas said. “I don’t even want to try to count the days.

“I feel like it’s the elderly that need that personal communication and hugging the most,” she continued. “They need to know they’re loved and appreciated.

“A visit through a window doesn’t add up at all to hug.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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