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Washington outlines plan to allow visits at long-term care facilities

Long-term care facilities have been under strict visitation restrictions for months to curb the spread of coronavirus among a vulnerable population.

The state has announced new rules for long-term care facilities, which could give families and friends greater access to their loved ones as the coronavirus pandemic moves into its seventh month in Washington.

Long-term care facilities would have phased reopenings, based on their outbreak preparedness and if no staff or residents have tested positive for coronavirus in the previous 28 days.

"The upshot of what we will announce today will mean more grandmothers visiting their grandchildren, it will mean more fathers visiting their sons, it will mean more friends getting together," Gov. Jay Inslee said.

"And I think that's going to mean real joy for people and I think it's going to be good for the mental health for residents. It will mean that people will have what they enjoy most in life which is to see the people that they love," he said. "This is good not just for people in long-term care, but for their relatives as well."

Facilities can send the state applications for reopening visits starting Wednesday, Aug. 12, and state officials expect that approvals for qualified long-term care facilities will follow shortly after that date.

The phased plan is not exactly the same as the state's four-phase plan for counties, but nursing homes can't be in a more advanced phase than the counties they are in.

Residents in long-term care facilities who are elderly or have disabilities have been at a higher risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in February. 

About 6% of all deaths due to coronavirus in Washington state have involved people associated with long-term care facilities, said John Wiesman, secretary, Department of Health. That includes residents, staff and visitors, he said.

The first outbreak reported in the U.S. was at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, an assisted living facility, where several people were infected and dozens lost their lives to the deadly virus.

Some of the earliest serious outbreaks in the state were at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Cheryl Strange said that health officials learned a lot about coronavirus from the outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland, including how quickly coronavirus spread, how outside spread might affect a long-term care facility and how to manage testing.

"Being as prepared as possible was a big lesson for us going forward," she said.

Wiesman agreed.

"So much has changed since that time, and we're in a much better place," he said.

Phase 1

  • Compassionate care visits
  • Window visits
  • Remote visits, and
  • Outdoor visits, limited to two a day

All long-term care facilities are currently in Phase 1, Inslee said.

Phase 2

  • Indoor visits in limited circumstances, only if visits can’t be done outdoors or remotely.
  • Only one indoor visitor, known as an essential support person, would be allowed per resident.
  • All visitors must wear facial coverings and be screened for symptoms before entering.

Phase 3

  • Outdoor visits still preferred. 
  • Residents and clients are allowed to leave these facilities as long as they practice social distancing, wear a mask, and are screened for symptoms when they return.

Phase 4

  • Return to normal visitation protocols. But these facilities would still need to continue to follow COVID-19 testing guidance for staff and residents, as well as screening people for symptoms and having appropriate PPE.