Coronavirus updates, Featured

Two-person outdoor visits to be allowed at nursing homes

Mountain View Center, a nursing home in Rutland. Mountain View photo

By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Vermonters who live in long-term care facilities could have their first face-to-face visits with visiting family or friends by Father’s Day, Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday.

Scott and Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith outlined new guidance that the state plans to put into effect Sunday for the state’s more than 200 long-term care facilities, as well as guidance for limited hospital visits.

But starting Sunday, the state will allow residents to have visits with up to two guests who have undergone a questionnaire screening for Covid-19 symptoms. The visits must take place outdoors, Scott said.

“I realize this step is small, but it is meaningful,” said Scott, adding that the guidelines are likely to change in coming weeks as the state continues to track the spread of the virus in Vermont and elsewhere and to ease social distancing guidelines in phases.

Vermont has 204 long-term care facilities, including all nursing homes, residential care, and assisted living, said Monica Hutt, commissioner of the Agency of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. The new guidelines for visits affect between 3,000 and 4,000 people who live in those facilities, she said Wednesday.

Taking personal responsibility to stay safe

In opening the door to more face-to-face contact for families and friends, said Levine, the state is acknowledging that social isolation also carries the risk of mental and physical harm. He said he hears a lot of questions from people who are over 65 about how to protect themselves while still leaving the house.

The immune response becomes weaker as people age, Levine said, and people are also more likely to acquire chronic disease by that age.

“Age alone does make you more vulnerable,” he said. He added that individuals should take responsibility for determining what level of exposure they are most comfortable with – and to choose outdoor settings over indoor.

“We want to help people to be armed with information and make wise choices on their own and measure and manage the risk first and the benefits,” he said. “When indoors, pay attention to the size of the space you’re in, how much crowding there may be, how many people are there, are the people there actually doing things to prevent you from getting Covid? Are they wearing facial coverings? Keeping a distance?”

“As we know, with this virus the actions of those around us make a critical difference, so you have to ask yourself are you comfortable in this setting,” he said.

Scott also said the state would be issuing technical guidance Wednesday for the opening of drop-in senior centers. This guidance refers to places where Vermonters over the age of 50 gather in the daytime, not to care-based adult day centers, said Scott.

But visits to inmates at Department of Corrections facilities are still off-limits. On Tuesday, an inmate who had recently arrived from Florida to the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland showed Covid-19 symptoms and tested positive for the virus. That person has been in quarantine since arriving from out of state, Scott said.

The new hospital guidelines prohibit visits to patients suspected of having Covid-19. They are complex and specific to different patient situations, but for pediatric patients, a limit of one visitor is lifted to two parents, or one parent and one visitor.

Like many of the other Covid-19-related rules issued this year in the form of executive order, the guidelines for long-term care facilities are mandatory, said Smith.

“This is different than other areas, because this is a regulated industry, and if somebody reports it, we will investigate whether they are in compliance with the regulations,” he said.

Scott will again ask retailers for their views on mandatory masks

One area where the state’s recommendations aren’t mandatory is in the wearing of masks. State officials have asked Vermonters who leave their homes to visit public places to wear masks, especially when indoors, to minimize the chance of infecting others with Covid-19. But they have repeatedly said they hope to achieve compliance through education, not enforcement. Meanwhile, a debate has raged for weeks on social media nationally and in Vermont on whether requiring masks is government overreach.

Asked Wednesday about whether he’s still considering a mask requirement, Scott said he plans to ask Vermont’s retail association to poll its members – as it did earlier in the crisis – to learn their views on a mask mandate. Most store employees are required to wear masks or to stay behind a plexiglass screen when interacting with customers. Many do both. Scott said he’s heard from both sides on the issue.

“As you can imagine, it’s controversial,” was the most Scott would say about his own views on a mask requirement. He added that he wants to hear from retailers before he increases the occupancy allowed in most stores, now set at 25%.

Scott said his first priority for business is for the Legislature to rapidly bring before him some proposals for spending the federal CARES Act money intended to help shore up the businesses hurt by the sweeping closures instituted in March. The Legislature last week passed $70 million in grant funding for businesses. The Senate has passed a package that includes $30 million for farms.

Scott, who has proposed $400 million in economic relief, repeated Wednesday that he wants lawmakers to move more quickly on their proposals.

“We are willing to work with them on this,” he said, adding that many businesses are now “fragile” after months of closure or near-closure.

“It’s about the people that are employed by these businesses,” he said. “If they don’t survive, then we have this systemic unemployment gap that we’ll see in the future, leading to a lot of other issues in terms of our societal issues over the next couple of years.”

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