ALBANY, N.Y. — Lawmakers are demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo lift remaining restrictions for visits at nursing homes, according to a letter two dozen Democratic lawmakers sent to the governor this week.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a heavy toll on nursing homes in New York, where state health officials have taken a cautious approach to visitations. At least 15,800 people living in nursing homes and assisted living residences have died of COVID-19, according to state and federal data, with 3,400 deaths reported from November through mid-February.
But New York lifted many restrictions on nursing home visits this spring in light of federal guidance that, in part, cleared the way for loved ones to hug residents if both are vaccinated.
Nursing homes in New York are urged to provide indoor visits, though visits can be curtailed once residents or staff test positive. Residents can receive "compassionate care" visits that aren't subject to restrictions for a variety of scenarios, including residents who are in end-of-life care or in emotional distress. New York also lifted a requirement for visitors to test negative for COVID-19 : a move some experts and family members have questioned.
Now, some nursing homes are allowing one or two visitors at a time to visit loved ones for as little as 30 minutes once or twice a week, sometimes with hours limited to weekdays.
"In the year before vaccinations became available, our seniors endured loneliness and isolation that had very real impacts on their physical and mental health," the lawmakers wrote in the July 12 letter to Cuomo. "While the majority of New Yorkers have had the opportunity to resume a life of pre-COVID-19 activity, seniors in many nursing homes have been excluded."
Christina McComish, 59, of Valatie, said her 88-year-old mother has declined in the last year, and has struggled with isolation, dementia and hearing loss. McComish said it can take days to make appointments to see her mother for 30 minutes at opposite ends of a dining table in the nursing home lobby.
She said she snuck a hug with her mother during their last visit, though the nursing home discouraged it. McComish, who works as a creative arts therapist at another nearby nursing home, said it's a struggle to know what visitation rights residents and family members have.
She said her mother's nursing home has told her that compassionate care visits are only for "end-of-life" scenarios.
"She's vaccinated, I'm vaccinated," McComish said. "She's just going to die in there, she's just going to die alone."
Sen. Rachel May, a Democrat from central New York, said lawmakers are hearing from too many constituents who find it difficult to visit loved ones even after New York's state of emergency expired.
May pushed for a new law that allows nursing home residents to have limited visits during public health emergencies. New York U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican, is sponsoring a similar bill at the federal level.
"Obviously states need to have control over out-of-control public health emergencies," May said. "Barring that it seems to me that if your nursing home is your home you should have the right to visit your person and that should be pretty basic."
New York's Department of Health released updated rules last week that said nursing homes can face citation and enforcement actions for restricting visitation without a "reasonable clinical or safety cause" under federal law.
"To be clear: DOH's nursing home visitation guidance does not limit the length of time for nursing home visits," spokesperson Jeffrey Hammond said. "Compassionate care visits should be permitted at all times."
He said nursing homes should allow indoor visits at all times except when there's a "high risk of COVID-19 transmission."
Hammond said New Yorkers concerned about a nursing home's visitation rules can call the state's hotline at 1-888-201-4563.
As more nursing home residents in New York get vaccinated, infection rates have plummeted: from 410 deaths and 1,835 infections reported in the week ending Jan. 17, to five deaths and 10 infections in the week ending June 27.
Still, 106 residents and 154 staff tested positive in June.
And cases are spiking statewide: 5,100 people tested positive for the 7 days through Wednesday. That's up 65% from 3,100 the previous week.
Fewer than 60% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated in eight counties, including Brooklyn. At the borough's 364-bed Cobble Hill Health Center, where 57% of staff are fully vaccinated, eight residents tested positive in June. One resident died.
"The vaccines work. We have seen an abundance of evidence that vaccinated residents who test positive remain asymptomatic," director of social work Stephanie Zevon said in a June 12 letter to families.