REGIONAL- Since the beginning of Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, no settings have experienced tighter restrictions than long-term care facilities. For months, …
REGIONAL- Since the beginning of Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, no settings have experienced tighter restrictions than long-term care facilities. For months, residents of such facilities faced nearly total isolation from the outside world.
Those restrictions were eased somewhat when health officials allowed facilities to establish plans for outdoor visitation, while still enforcing masking and social distancing. Tightly-controlled indoor visits from people designated as “essential caregivers”, which could include limited numbers of family members and others, were also allowed.
This week, with temperatures growing colder and COVID-19 case rates again on the rise, the Walz administration took its biggest leap yet in ending the social isolation and loneliness of residents and the frustrations of families by issuing new guidance to expand indoor visits even more.
In fact, indoor visits are now the default mode for long-term care facilities. Per the latest guidance issued by the administration: “If a facility has had no COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days and its county positivity rate is low or medium, an assisted living facility must facilitate in-person visitation consistent with the regulations.” Based on the last two weeks of testing results, that should allow most care facilities in St. Louis County to open for public visits— and Ely’s Boundary Waters Care Center announced Wednesday that they will be opening to the public later this week, pending negative test results from residents and staff. Masks and social distancing will be required, per state and federal guidelines.
The move comes at a time when positive COVID-19 test rates have been rising across the state and in St. Louis County, and an increasing number of facilities have been reporting positive COVID cases. State officials said on Friday that the number of facilities with at least one confirmed infection in a resident or worker in the past 28 days has surged from 239 on Sept. 1 to more than 340. Five more facilities in St. Louis County were added to the list last week, bringing the total number of such facilities in the county to 15.
County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said on Tuesday said that the change brings the state in alignment with national guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but is also responding to concerns about the effects of social isolation on the elderly.
“Mental health concerns and meeting mental health needs are really important,” Westbrook said. “They haven’t seen loved ones or visitors for quite some time. COVID-19 and the pandemic will be going on quite a while. We’ll see case rates through the winter and spring. This is a recognition that we want long-term care facilities to allow visitation and to do it in a safe way as much as possible.”
Westbrook said the regulations are similar in many respects to the approach used for reopening schools. The goal is to use count and local data to determine the safest level for a facility’s indoor visit plans. In all cases, facilities must ensure the standard precautions of masking, social distancing, and limiting group sizes. The presumption is that facilities should strive to provide the greatest level of access possible ,relative to local conditions and protecting residents.
“I think facilities have learned a lot and have taken COVID-19 seriously,” Westbrook said. “I think there are some really good things that have happened that have put facilities in a good place to open up visitation a little more. We’ve been asking a lot of long-term care and assisted living facilities, and hopefully we won’t see an increase in cases.”
Ely testing event
Westbrook had positive news to report about the results of the recent drive-through COVID testing event in Ely The town is still coping with the impact of positive COVID-19 cases discovered in recent weeks in two local long-term care facilities and the school system, including numerous deaths linked to the virus,and the change from in-person learning to a hybrid model in Ely schools.
Of the 493 tests administered at the event, only one tested positive for COVID-19.
“We hadn’t seen a case in Ely for probably a week and a half prior to the testing event, so we weren’t certain what we would see,” Westbrook said. “We were surprised we only saw one positive.”
Given the rise in cases across the county attributed to known and unknown community spread, Westbrook said one possible explanation for the unexpected finding could be how community members responded to the long-term care facility and school exposures.
“I’m guessing that was part of it,” she said, “that the community responded by doing what’s effective – wearing face coverings in social gatherings, social distancing, and staying home when you’re sick. I’m hoping that’s what happened because that’s exactly what we want to see, a community coming together to do what’s necessary to control the spread of the virus.”