MONTPELIER — As part of Vermont's reopening efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, long-term care facilities will be able to offer outdoor visitation for up two guests per resident each day starting Friday.
"I realize this step is small but it's meaningful," Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday during his regular COVID-19 press conference, adding that any concerning trends will be tracked to ensure safety before lifting more restrictions. "In a pandemic with no playbook and so many challenges, this stands out as the most difficult to solve."
Between 3,000 to 4,000 residents live in 204 nursing homes, residential care and assisted living facilities across Vermont. About half of the 55 deaths statewide are linked to such sites.
In a Facebook post early Wednesday afternoon, the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington, stated: "The Governor announced today that outdoor visits may begin June 19th. We are in the process of reviewing these guidelines and will provide information on how these visits will take place in the near future. We ask that you hold off on calling the facility at this time. Thank you." By 7:15 p.m., the post had received 72 positive emoji reactions or comments and 26 shares.
Mike Smith, secretary of Vermont Agency of Human Services, said residents at the facilities have gone without visitors since mid-March. He expressed hope that arrangements could be made for guests to visit on Father's Day on Sunday.
Scott called the coronavirus "most dangerous" to individuals 65 and older, and those with chronic health issues. The decision to close long-term facilities and other senior care facilities to the public was difficult but necessary as the results of an outbreak could be devastating, he said, while also acknowledging the social and emotional toll the restrictions have taken on residents at these facilities.
State guidelines for long-term care residential facilities require visitations to be arranged beforehand. Visitors must be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 and wear face coverings if they are older than 2. Visits can be limited based on available resources.
All visitations are required to be documented and tracked with a log of times, dates and contact information. Residents should be encouraged to wear face coverings. Facilities should make hand sanitizer available to visitors and provide staff supervision as needed to help make sure distances of at least 6 feet are kept between people. Until their quarantine is successfully complete, newly admitted residents should not have visitors.
If this step is deemed successful, state officials plan to gradually ease other restrictions at the facilities. That could include allowing for more visitors, entry for nonessential workers into buildings, and group dining and activities.
The policy for hospital visitations also has been updated, including requirements about face coverings, screening and tracking visitors. One visitor at a time will be permitted for patients in inpatient/acute care, emergency departments and express/urgent care. Two parents or one parent and a visitor will be allowed for pediatric patients. If warranted, an additional person will be allowed to help if a patient has medical or access issues.
When providing end-of-life care, the medical team will make choices on visitations. No visitors will be allowed in outpatient clinics unless support and help is needed in getting to appointments.
The Vermont Department of Health and Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living will offer technical assistance to senior centers as they can begin reopening. Smith said these sites "play a critical role in combating social isolation, and maintaining health and wellness through evidence-based programs."
Adult day service providers will not be reopening yet.
State Health Commissioner Mark Levine said immune systems weaken with age. He suggested people choose outdoor settings over indoor whenever possible and avoid crowding.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.