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Task Force Aims for Improved Care in Tennessee Nursing Homes


The coronavirus ravaged Tennessee’s long-term care facilities last year, claiming more than 1,200 lives. But the lockdowns to combat COVID-19 led to social isolation and visitor restrictions that for some were almost as devastating.

“We have heard families say they would rather have a loved one for a shorter period of time and be able to visit them than to stretch it out but not be able to see them,” said Rebecca Kelly, AARP Tennessee’s state director. “I really think that’s the dilemma we’re looking at right now.”

Many residents of state nursing homes are deteriorating in isolation and dying alone, unable to see loved ones in their final days.

In response to the virus, Tennessee issued extensive visitation guidelines for family members. Case numbers and positivity rates in each county were monitored to determine whether visits would be allowed.

In October, the restrictions were eased to allow outdoor and limited indoor visits if a facility has had no new COVID-19 cases among residents or staff in 14 days. Each visitor is screened for symptoms and has a temperature check, and visits are limited to 45 minutes.

“We’ve got to be vigilant with guidelines, but we also have to balance that with innovative solutions to ensure the physical and mental health of nursing home residents,” Kelly said.

Visitation rules are one of the issues under review by the state’s COVID-19 Long-Term Care Task Force, which Kelly proposed and Gov. Bill Lee (R) created last year.

Members include medical experts, business leaders, family members of residents, and advocates such as Kelly.

Need for staffing

AARP Tennessee will press for improved staffing in nursing homes, higher levels of personal protective equipment, more opportunities for virtual visits and regular communication between residents and families.

According to Kelly, the diversity of members on the task force will enhance its work.

“Often, I think the administrators of nursing homes and staff are around the table, but they do not always include residents, families and caregivers,” she said. “This is a task force that combines those voices.”

Another task force member, Claudia Barajas, of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, serves on the AARP Tennessee Executive Council and is an advocate for the Hispanic community.

She sees a need to release reliable information on visitation guidelines while continuing to help protect residents and workers in long-term care facilities.

“There is a lot of disconnection between the Hispanic community and the health care system, so there is the tendency to not believe COVID is as dangerous as it is,” she said. Many are workers exposed to the virus, and “sometimes they cannot leave their jobs because if they don’t work, they don’t receive pay.”

Barajas agrees that understanding visitation rules is an urgent need for families and residents, especially those requiring information in Spanish.

“Interaction with family members stimulates residents, stimulates their brains and makes them feel happier,” Barajas said. “Not being able to see anybody brings challenges. It’s a lot of isolation, loneliness. And those things are not good for your health.”

Hollie Deese is a writer living in Gallatin, Tenn.

More on Long-Term Care

Heartbreaking Story of a Nursing Home Coronavirus Death

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