Utah health department says family visits at some assisted living centers are OK

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to Highland Cove retirement community in Millcreek, April 27, 2020.

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The Utah Department of Health has issued new guidelines for assisted living centers, including those caring for dementia patients, that allow family visits.

The guidelines say these interactions should happen outside, if possible, but could take place inside. Either way, the residents and their family should be masked and at least 6 feet apart. Even then, the visits should only be allowed if there are no coronavirus cases at the center and if the visitors pass a health care screening.

The health department says visits to any memory care units should only happen outside and if the resident is able to keep his or her mask on and maintain physical distancing. Staff should supervise visits to both the memory care units and other parts of assisted living centers to ensure everyone is complying with the rules.

The new guidelines were dated June 22 and loaded to a Utah Department of Health website as the state’s coronavirus cases were in the midst of reaching a higher plateau that held steady Tuesday. The guidelines have not changed for more-skilled care facilities such as nursing homes and rehabilitation centers — no in-person family visits allowed.

Dr. Allyn Nakashima, a program manager at the Utah Department of Health, pointed out the new guidelines Tuesday during an episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s online show “Trib Talk.” She described them as a way to help the mental health of residents and families in Utah communities with few or no coronavirus cases.

Nakashima said long-term care facilities are working hard to keep the virus out. Once those infection controls are in place, she said, the amount of community spread becomes the big factor in whether the virus enters the facility.

“When you see spikes in the disease in the community,” Nakashima said, “then we’re going to see spikes in the number of health care facilities that get this infection introduced into the facility.”

Many long-term care facilities — from assisted living centers to nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled — banned visitors even before the lockdowns of mid-March, and turned through-the-window visits of the elderly and their families into quintessential images of the pandemic. Despite precautions, such facilities have been deadly spots for the coronavirus in Utah.

According to the state health department, 81 of Utah’s 194 coronavirus deaths have been traced to infections at long-term care facilities. One assisted living center, Highland Cove Retirement Community in Millcreek, had at least nine of its residents die in an outbreak that began in April.

Dr. Sue Jackson, an associate professor in the Department of Public and Community Health at Utah Valley University, reviewed the guidelines Tuesday. She said the new rules strike a balance between the physical and emotional health of people who have gone four months without seeing family in the flesh.

“This pandemic is not quickly going away,” Jackson wrote in an email to The Tribune. “To ask long-term care residents to potentially spend their final months or years of life without visits from family is unconscionable.”

Heather Gardner has reached out to assisted living centers near her home in West Bountiful asking how she could help during the pandemic and heard stories of residents declining mentally and physically while not being able to see loved ones. In reaction, she’s written to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and her state legislators asking for visits much like the ones described in the new guidelines.

“They’re depressed,” Gardner said, “they’re lonely, they’re agitated and confused as to why family is not visiting.”

The guidelines are not binding on the assisted living centers. They could allow for visits under looser conditions than what the Utah Department of Health recommends or keep prohibiting them.

Danny Harris, advocacy director at AARP Utah, worried Tuesday that many assisted living centers aren’t ready to receive visitors. They might lack the personal protective equipment and the staff necessary to protect the residents, visitors and the employees, he said.

The Utah Legislature, in a special session to address the pandemic, gave long-term care facilities legal protections from coronavirus infections in all cases except gross negligence or malice.

“The concern that we have,” Harris said, “is who is accountable to make sure these facilities are following the guidelines?”