Feds ban most nursing home visitors in escalation of coronavirus fight

Seema Verma
CMS Administrator Seema Verma at an earlier address.

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent developments:

Federal authorities announced late Friday new restrictions on nursing home visitors in guidance aimed at protecting seniors from the novel coronavirus.

In a press release and memo issued late Friday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services provided details about the new policy. Among the new measures, it states that “facilities should restrict visitation of all visitors and non-essential health care personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation.”

The guidance, which CMS calls the “most aggressive and decisive recommendations with respect to nursing home safety in the face of the spread of COVID-19” also includes cancelling all group activities and communal dining, and implementing active screening of residents and healthcare personnel for fever and respiratory symptoms. The guidance is based on the newest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exceptions to the visitation ban are healthcare workers and surveyors. And for those visitors who enter for compassionate care situations, they will be limited to one room only, and “facilities should require visitors to perform hand hygiene and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as facemasks.”

CMS Administrator Seema Verma gave a preview of this guidance Friday afternoon during a press conference with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who has been named the point person of the nation’s effort against COVID-19, among others.

“It’s especially important now that we look after seniors with chronic, underlying health conditions,” Pence said. “Last week, the president directed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to raise the standards in our nursing homes, increase inspections at our nursing homes. Today, we’re offering very specific guidance.”

On Monday, the administration issued guidance that only recommended the halt of nursing home visits by individuals who might be showing coronavirus symptoms. That issuance came as the American Health Care Association also called for “unprecedented” restriction of visitors. Many assisted living and independent living operators across the country quickly complied with the recommendation for visitor restrictions.

Friday’s action indicates just how swiftly and severely the battle against further spread of COVID-19 has escalated. The nation’s first, and to date worst, outbreak of the dangerous bug took place at a nursing home in Kirkland, WA. The death toll hit 22 there as of Wednesday. There have been 41 deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Verma said during the press conference that Friday’s announcement concerns a temporary restriction “to all visitors and non-essential personnel, with few exceptions, such as end-of-life situations.” It mirrors what many facilities voluntarily instituted earlier this week, including temperature screenings of their own workers, but now puts a heavy official federal mandate in place.

“We fully appreciate that this measure represents a severe trial for residents of nursing homes and those who love them, but we are doing what we must to protect our vulnerable elderly,” she said.

Statistics out of China, where the current pandemic started, have shown that COVID-19 is many times more fatal for seniors than other age groups and more likely to kill than a regular flu strain.

Earlier Friday, the route to easing certain caregiving and other regulations was paved when Trump formally declared a national state of emergency over the coronavirus.