NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee on Friday signed executive orders that will end state visitation restrictions at nursing homes and long-term care facilities starting Sunday.
The governor also signed orders that will extend other COVID-19 regulations imposed by Tennessee's limited state of emergency through April 28.
“Our state’s COVID-19 numbers continue to improve thanks to efficient vaccine distribution and efforts to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Gov. Lee said. “I have authorized continuation of a limited state of emergency through April 28th in order to keep critical healthcare deregulation in place and ensure continued federal funding compliance, and to lift state visitation restrictions on nursing home and long-term care facilities. To be very clear, my orders do not include any restriction on business. We will continue to focus on delivering vaccines to every corner of the state, ensuring kids get back in the classroom and building on our strong economic recovery.”
Health leaders said that the state's visitation restrictions for long-term care facilities will end on Feb. 28. They said that certified Medicare and Medicaid facilities should use guidance from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instead.
The federal guidance allows indoor visitation when there has not been a new onset of COVID-19 vases over the last 14 days, and the facility is not conducting outbreak testing.
It also outlines how facilities can expand communal dining and other group activities, as long as safety policies are followed.
"My mom had COVID back in April or May, struggled with it, but survived and now she's been vaccinated," Charles Denney said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity to maybe get to see my mom in person again."
Health leaders also said that facilities not licensed by CMS should still use its guidance when developing their own facility-specific visitation policies, officials said. They also said facilities licensed by the state should follow industry best practices. Those facilities may choose to continue visitation restrictions.
They said that all of Tennessee's nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday. Vaccinations at assisted care living facilities and residential homes should be completed this week, they said.
Despite the state restrictions being eased, some facilities aren't ready to lift restrictions yet, like Life Care Centers of America, which operates 27 facilities in Tennessee.
"We are aware of the Tennessee Department of Health announcement today that their state-specific visitation restrictions would end on February 28, 2021, and that moving forward after that date facilities should use the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance for safe operation and visitation since the state-level restrictions would no longer be in place," said Jennifer Solomon, Eastern Division Vice President, in a statement to 10News. "However, it is important, especially for families, to realize that this is not removing all visitation restrictions and allowing us to go back to normal. It is simply pointing us to CMS guidelines instead of TDH."
The facilities will also take into account how many cases there are in the community and will work closely with local health departments to determine if it's safe to allow visitors.
"Current CDC guidance has nursing facilities consider COVID-19 cases within their building and the community before allowing indoor visitation. Nursing facilities may allow indoor visitation when there has been no new onset of COVID-19 cases for either residents or associates in the last 14 days and the facility is not currently conducting outbreak testing," Solomon said.
Once families are allowed to visit, there will be guidelines in place, like social distancing, mask-wearing and temperature screening.
"We are encouraged by the increasing number of Tennesseans who have taken the COVID-19 vaccine, and by the lessening case numbers in the state. We continue to encourage our community members to join our associates and residents in doing their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by continuing to practice social distancing, mask-wearing and proper hand hygiene," said Solomon.
The Tennessee Department of Health on Monday announced it will soon end state COVID-19 visitation restrictions at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state that have been in place in various forms since the start of the pandemic.
TDH Commission Dr. Lisa Piercey said during the state's Monday briefing that the state is nearly finished with fully vaccinating 100% of people living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state. Piercey said roughly 25% of people living in long-term care facilities remain who are still awaiting their second dose of the vaccine.
Spanish Version: TDH anuncia que pronto pondrán fin a las restricciones en las visitas en centros de envejecientes y de cuidados prolongados
At the current schedule, she said they expect to deliver the remaining second doses to residents of LTCFs by Sunday, February 28. Once that happens, Piercey said the state can relax its visitation restrictions to nursing homes and LTCFs -- effectively ending them.
This will not necessarily mean all facilities will allow visitors come Sunday, though. Piercey said facility owners can still choose to restrict visitors and keep company guidelines in place to keep their residents safe.
Currently, facilities with no cases in the past 14 days are eligible for visitation, according to the guidelines from the Office of Health Licensure and Regulation. In the early months of the pandemic -- facilities were locked down to the public from any outside visitors in an effort to protect the most vulnerable from infection.
TDH said it will announce more information about the new guidance later this week.
According to the state's data on nursing homes and long-term care facilities, new positive COVID-19 clusters have fallen and become more sporadic inside nursing homes and LTCFs among residents and staff. Most facilities across the state are reporting it's been at least two weeks since it detected a positive COVID-19 case.
Vaccine distribution for those facilities began at the end of December.
To date, TDH said 2,562 people living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes in the state have died to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. A total of 18,773 residents and 14,880 staff have tested positive.