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Revisit new rules for nursing homes

The state's new rules require visitors to nursing

The state's new rules require visitors to nursing homes to show they have tested negative for the coronavirus within seven days of their visits. Credit: Getty Images/Paul Biris

For months, many nursing home residents have been unable to see their loved ones, as New York’s requirements for visitation were difficult for most facilities to meet.

So, when the state loosened some regulations earlier this month, it was welcome news. Now, visitors are permitted as long as the nursing home has not recorded a new COVID-19 case within 14 days, a standard that’s easier to meet than the prior 28-day rule.

But there’s a catch that worries family members and nursing home advocates alike.

The state’s new rules require visitors to show they tested negative for the coronavirus within seven days of their visit.

On the face, that seems to make sense. Nursing homes were the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, where thousands of our most vulnerable residents died. The possibility of a second wave is real, and protecting residents and staff is critically important.

But practically speaking, the regulation doesn’t work. Many people don’t have easy access to a test, or can’t afford it. For those who could access a test, there’s the question of how long it takes to get results. A rapid test takes just 15 minutes. Some labs take a day or two. But others still take seven days or longer.

So, imagine a scenario where a daughter plans to visit her mother, takes a coronavirus test, but doesn’t get a negative test result until the seven-day period passed.

That’s unacceptable.

The state’s testing standard for nursing home visitors is an uneven policy at best, as the same guideline doesn’t apply to visitors to hospitals or assisted living facilities. And many of the state’s regulations are more stringent than policies set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Caution is warranted, but a testing requirement must be matched with efforts to make it accessible, free, and fast for everyone. State officials said that the federal government is providing rapid-test machines to nursing homes. Perhaps the state could help to provide access to such rapid tests to visitors as well, so they can be tested upon arrival. If that’s not possible, the state should give families information about and access to free testing sites, with quick results. State officials also said they’re ramping up the availability of saliva testing. That, too, could help.

And the state should reevaluate its policies in the coming weeks and months to see whether they are necessary and make sense. If, as CMS suggests, there are other ways to protect nursing home residents and staff, they should be considered.

State officials are right to open nursing home doors to family members. The isolation and loneliness has been detrimental to all. But by loosening some rules, and tightening others, the state could make the situation worse, and end up shutting out many daughters, sons, grandchildren and others. And that would do far more harm than good.

— The editorial board