After COVID isolation, new law protects nursing home visitation in New York. What to know

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As New York nursing homes begin resuming visitation after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, a new state law will ensure facilities provide access to family members and other people acting as caregivers to residents despite future outbreaks.

The law will protect the visitation rights of countless New Yorkers who provide physical, emotional and mental support for nursing home residents.

It stemmed from family members and advocates raising concerns the de-facto caregivers had been unjustly denied entry to nursing homes during the pandemic.

AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel touted it as key to preventing a repeat of the isolation and suffering faced by residents and family members since authorities banned nursing home visits last March to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“Too many of the more than 13,000 New Yorkers who have died in nursing homes since the pandemic began … died alone after family and loved ones in many cases were prohibited from visiting,” she said in a statement.

Kelley Dixon, 78, a resident at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y. gets a COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Mitchel Zaretsky Dec. 21, 2020. Dixon was the first resident at the nursing home to receive the vaccine. The home received enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate all 600 of its residents, which it plans to do over the next three days.

“Family and loved ones not only prevent social isolation, they also provide crucial eyes and ears for the proper care of nursing home residents,” she added.

The new law will provide for up to two personal caregiving visitors that will be exempt from general prohibitions of visitation, while requiring they follow safety procedures and protocols at a minimum of those required of staff, such as mandatory COVID-19 testing.

Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, and Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester, spearheaded the legislation that passed the Legislature last month and resulted in the new law, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed on Monday.

The law takes effect 45 days from the bill signing, allowing the state Department of Health time to finalize regulations related to the measure.

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It comes after the health department on March 25 issued new guidelines for opening nursing home visitation to all residents with limited exceptions, putting the state in line with federal COVID-19 guidance issued earlier in the month.

But similar moves in the past to expand nursing home visits have fallen short amid confusion and delays in rolling out new guidelines.

State Health Department guidelines issued on Feb. 26, for example, recommended nursing homes allow more visits under expanded compassionate care eligibility, such as for family members who provide essential care to residents, even in facilities with a COVID-19 case. Previously, it only applied to end-of-life scenarios.

Nearly three weeks after the Feb. 26 expansion, however, many nursing homes remained closed to visitors, while advocates and family members raised questions about facilities denying compassionate care visits.

Bronson addressed the issue in a statement, noting it’s become abundantly clear that the guidelines were “woefully inadequate to meet the need to have family visitations” and the new law was needed “to ensure the separation of the last year never happens again.”

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud

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