ST. LOUIS — Families with loved ones in nursing and long-term care homes without COVID-19 can start visiting them outdoors again, Missouri health officials say.
Residential care facilities that have not recorded any new COVID-19 infections in the past four weeks can begin outdoor visits or visits through a window for residents who are not physically mobile, the Department of Health and Senior Services Facilities announced Tuesday, citing a 43 percent decline in hospitalizations since May 1.
The decision by state health officials will allow the facilities to receive visitors for the first time since mid-March, when they closed their doors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Residents who have tested negative for COVID-19 may receive up to two visitors at a time, according to DHSS guidelines.
“We recognize everyone’s patience and are thankful to share this welcome news so that loved ones can visit together again while continuing to follow measures intended to protect their health,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a news release.
Families are advised not to visit relatives in nursing homes for several days after recovery, according to DHSS guidelines. The department also released guidelines Tuesday for facilities to start allowing communal dining and group activities for residents.
At least 222 Missouri long-term care facilities have reported at least one COVID-19 infection among either residents or employees, according to DHSS. They includes dozens of facilities in the St. Louis region, including 71 care homes in St. Louis County.
More than 300 residents of those homes have died of the disease and more than 1,400 others have been infected, according to estimates by St. Louis County health officials. Preliminary data from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services meanwhile, has counted at least 254 COVID-19 deaths at federally-licensed skilled-nursing homes across Missouri.
NHC HealthCare in Maryland Heights, reported the highest number of deaths in Missouri. Twenty-one residents at the nursing home at 2920 Fee Fee Road have died, and 66 have been infected.
Missouri health officials have ramped up testing at residential care facilities in recent weeks. At least 107 facilities have tested all residents and employees for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to DHSS.
An order issued May 18 requiring residential care facilities to report COVID-19 infections within 24 hours remains in place, Williams said.
Residential care facilities are expected to continue taking preventative measures including screening employees, residents and visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, providing them with face masks and gloves, requiring frequent hand-washing and cleaning common areas.
“We will continue to watch our long-term care facilities closely during this transition period,” Williams said.
The decision was welcomed by advocates for nursing home residents and their families. Visits with family and friends are crucial for many nursing home residents' physical and mental health, especially residents unable to operate phones or other communication devices, said Marjorie Moore, executive director of VOYCE, a Creve Coeur-based nonprofit.
“All of us here at VOYCE are extremely happy for residents and their families and hope that all long-term care communities eligible find a way to make this possible,” Moore said.
Families in the St. Louis area have also complained of difficulty getting information about loved ones living inside facilities where the virus spread, in some cases calling facilities only to learn their loved ones were infected with COVID-19 days earlier.
Families revisiting loved ones this week may find their relatives have suffered a decline in mental or physical health, Moore said.
“We are preparing for an influx of concerns from people who have not seen their family members seeing them for the first time in three months,” she said. “It is likely that they will see a deterioration in mental and physical health over this time period, first because of the conditions that require them to live in such a setting in the first place, and also because of the long isolation.”