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New York to resume nursing home visits Friday. New details on guidelines revealed

David Robinson
New York State Team

New York nursing homes will resume indoor visitations on Friday under new rules that ease current COVID-19 testing requirements for visitors and increase the capacity for each facility, state officials said Monday.

The new visitor testing guidelines vary based on the amount of coronavirus cases spreading in each county, state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said during a conference call with reporters. 

Among the new rules:

  • No visitor testing would be required for nursing homes in counties with COVID test positivity rates below 5%, but health officials would still encourage visitors to get tested before entering the facility.
  • If a county has test positivity between 5% and 10%, nursing home visitors are required to obtain a negative COVID test result within 72 hours before entering the facility. 
  • The number of visitors to the nursing home must not exceed 20% of the resident census at any time, up from the current 10%.
  • Visitation is prohibited entirely if test positivity rates exceed 10% in a county.

The new rules, however, sustain a current restriction that only allows visits at nursing homes that go 14 days without a COVID case among the facility staff and residents, which is based on federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines, Zucker said Monday.

Each facility will either have a designated room set up for the visits, or ensure the resident is alone in their room with the visitor, Zucker said, adding the guidelines also recommend adhering to other pandemic precautions, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

Any visitor who has received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine would also not need to be tested, provided it's been 14 days since the second dose and still within 90 days, Zucker said, noting the pre-visit COVID test is still encouraged for those vaccinated.

Visitors under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult 18 years of age or older, according to the new rules. Facilities are also encouraged to limit the number of visitors per resident and schedule visits for a specific length of time to ensure all residents are able to receive visitors.

The new details were announced after Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday announced nursing home visitation would resume with the use of rapid COVID-19 tests, citing the state's push to use the devices to accelerate reopening plans.

More: Cuomo was a national star for COVID response. How it was upended by nursing home deaths

But the guidelines unveiled on Monday allow for visitors to obtain a rapid test or PCR lab-based test result within the 72 hours before entry. Zucker said the state Department of Health would help nursing homes to provide rapid tests to visitors.

Some family members and advocates have urged the state to ease the requirement that nursing homes go 14-days without a new COVID case before resuming visits.

They have asserted it is a difficult threshold to meet, especially for larger facilities, and could be eased based on the conditions in the facility and community to allow for more visitation, which would end months of isolation for some residents.

The new rules, however, include clarifications for compassionate care visits that are permitted when visitation may not otherwise be permitted.

Among the new rules for compassionate care visits:

  • Newly admitted residents with difficulty adjusting to the facility environment and lack of in-person family support.
  • Residents recently grieving the loss of a friend or loved one.
  • Residents who previously received in-person support and/or cueing from family for eating and drinking and are now experiencing dehydration and/or weight loss.
  • Residents who are exhibiting signs and symptoms of emotional distress including, but not limited to, seldom speaking or crying more frequently (when the resident had rarely cried in the past), refusing to participate in an activity or activities, staying in bed longer than usual, or exhibiting behavior considered abnormal for the individual.
  • Residents who receive religious or spiritual support from clergy or another layperson.

Additional compassionate care situations may be considered by the facility on a resident-specific basis. Testing should be encouraged, or facilitated wherever possible, the new rules stated.

Previously, compassionate care visits were primarily limited to end-of-life circumstances.

The debate over the 14-day threshold has been ongoing since New York reduced it from 28 days in September. At the time, about 500 of the 613 nursing homes statewide could meet the 14-days rule.

New York and other states initially banned visitation at nursing in March in an attempt to keep the coronavirus out of the facilities.

New York has been embroiled in scandal over its nursing home policies and public reporting of deaths associated with the facilities. More than 13,000 nursing home residents have died in New York, ranking it 34th among states, Cuomo said Monday.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove a photo of Pegasus Senior Living Evergreen Place (formerly Brookdale Brockport senior living community) because this facility was not subject to the new nursing home visitation guidelines issued by New York state.

More:New York to resume nursing home visitation with rapid COVID-19 testing. What to know

More:How Cuomo's COVID-19 nursing home scandal unraveled over the past year: Timeline, analysis

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud