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Inslee releases virus guidelines for nursing home visitors

Chuck Sedlacek briefly smiles as he looks out at family members from his bed at the Life Care Center, where a coronavirus outbreak occurred back in March.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press (file)
Chuck Sedlacek briefly smiles as he looks out at family members from his bed at the Life Care Center, where a coronavirus outbreak occurred back in March.

SEATTLE (AP) — Calling it a “big step forward,” Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced how visitors may return to nursing homes and other long term care operations — six months after the country's first known coronavirus outbreak devastated a Kirkland facility.

“We have come far enough in both our restraint in the pandemic and in our ability to develop protocols that will work,” Inslee said at a news conference.

The state is issuing a four-phase guideline on visitation that encourages outdoor meetings and correlates with the governor's four-phase county reopening plan.

There are 58,000 people living in about 4,000 licensed care facilities statewide. Cheryl Strange, secretary of the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, said regulators have visited every single facility to do infection control surveys.

Starting Aug. 12, individual nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult family homes may apply to the state for approval to allow visitors.

Washington state has had more than 60,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and more than 1,620 deaths. State authorities said earlier this week that roughly 10% of virus cases are linked to long-term care facilities, but more than half of the fatalities are associated with such operations.

The state has restricted all visitors to such facilities — with the exception of compassionate and end-of-life care units — since March. That was when the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland became the first long-term care facility with a deadly COVID-19 cluster in the U.S. in the early days of the pandemic.

A facility cannot move to a phase higher than the county where it is located, and the operation is not automatically granted visitor approval regardless of the county’s phase. The nursing home must also prove it hasn't had a positive coronavirus infection among any residents or workers in the past 28 days and that it has at least a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment on hand.

“You have to jump through a lot of hoops — in addition to being in the same phase that your county is in — to allow less restrictions,” Strange said.

Nearly all care facilities in the state will begin in the first phase for visitation, which allows for compassionate, window, remote and outdoor visits. Outdoor visits will be limited to two per day.

Limited indoor visits are allowed in Phase 2 and beyond, though only if outdoor options aren't available. Only one “essential support person” is allowed per resident. The visitors must always wear a mask and be screened for symptoms before entering inside. Limited group activities such as communal dining may also begin in Phase 2.

Care facility residents are allowed to leave the property for visits in Phase 3, and Phase 4 would mark a return to normal visitation protocols.

“This is a joyous celebration, in my view, of families being able to be together again,” Inslee said.

Most infection cases in nursing homes are brought in by staff unknowingly and Inslee said there's no way to totally eliminate risks once visitors are allowed.

“We can't just create bubbles like the NBA has,” Inslee said. “There’s going to be risk but we’ve minimized it as much as possible.”