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Coronavirus

Department of Health to R.I. nursing homes: You must allow visits

“RIDOH is prepared to take regulatory action to ensure visitation compliance in all Rhode Island long-term care facilities,” officials said in a memo

The Golden Crest Nursing Centre in North Providence, R.I.Edward Fitzpatrick/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Health is telling nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that it expects them to provide visitation for residents — and health officials will take action to make sure the facilities comply.

For months, the loved ones of residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have been complaining to state health officials and legislators that they are being barred from visits, even as COVID-19 infections fall and vaccination rates rise.

Long-term care facilities had been an epicenter for the virus, which led to outbreaks that killed residents and staff. Nursing homes have had nearly 1,465 deaths, and just under 175 residents of assisted-living facilities have died, according to state Health Department data.

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While those outbreaks have subsided — fewer than 25 total cases reported in the last two weeks — and facilities were allowed to resume visits, the reality has been a patchwork of compliance.

In a memo sent to administrators of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities on Monday, health associate director Steve Morris said that some facilities have said that visits are going well. In a recent survey, 88 long-term care facilities said they provided a total of 3,119 visits from March 7 to March 14.

However, the Health Department is also hearing complaints from the families and friends of residents. Visits are either restrictive or scheduled far in advance and canceled on a moment’s notice. Family members are mostly not allowed to help with their loved ones’ care, even though former governor Gina Raimondo said in December that facilities can allow these essential caregivers. Some have told legislators about not being allowed in as their loved ones are dying.

In the memo, Morris reminded the facilities of state and federal regulations establishing the rights of residents regarding in-person visitation. Health has also issued guidance on visits and expects that the facilities will provide visitation, he wrote.

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“Such responsiveness must include accommodating each visitation request, consistent with resident preferences, in the same week that the request is made,” Morris wrote in his memo. “RIDOH is prepared to take regulatory action to ensure visitation compliance in all Rhode Island long-term care facilities.”

Meanwhile, legislation in the House and Senate to require the Health Department to set rules and regulations to designate essential caregivers during an emergency declaration has been held for further study. Other states have already enacted similar legislation.

The frustration of families has been echoed by AARP Rhode Island, which sent a letter last month to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services asking the agency to make sure the facilities are complying with federal guidance on visits, including compassionate care.

“AARP believes it is vital that vulnerable seniors are able to safely visit with their loved ones,” AARP state director Kathleen Connell said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Rhode Island nursing home residents must be able to exercise their rights to visitation, and facilities should be held accountable for ensuring such visits occur. The state has a responsibility to see these rights are protected. Nursing homes must facilitate in-person visitation for all, consistent with the regulations, which only call for limiting visitation in specific circumstances.”

Those facilities that don’t follow the rules on visitations should be held accountable by the state and Medicare services and face penalties, Connell said.

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Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.