Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and residential-care facilities, in the state will be eligible to reopen for visitations beginning July 1 under certain guidelines set by the Arkansas Department of Health. The guidelines are expected to be released later today (June 17).
Although the reopening of long-term care facilities for visitation is not supposed to take place until Phase 3 in the guidelines set by the White House, Gov. Asa Hutchinson asserted that the state is ahead of its testing for the facilities to open.
The Arkansas Health Care Association, the Arkansas Department of Health and Department of Human Services have worked together to establish guidelines based upon testing to allow facilities to reopen for visitation.
“This will apply to facilities that have completed testing and meet the criteria outlined in the guidance from the department of health,” Hutchinson said. Every nursing home resident and staff member in facilities across the state will be tested as part of the state’s effort during the month of May to interrupt the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re ahead of schedule on our testing in terms of our Arkansas plan. We’re doing the testing this month with a low rate and the need that’s there. That’s the decision that we made with our Department of Health and our long-term care facilities. It’s the right step for Arkansas and it’s the right time. I don’t think whenever we have the low rate and we’ve had that success rate, it’s time to take that step to re-engage visitation,” he said.
Hutchinson said at his press conference yesterday (June 16) that as of Saturday, June 13, 150 facilities have been tested with 250 remaining.
“We have to remember that our begin date is July 1 for this visitation,” he said today. “There will be some facilities that will not be ready to start at that date, so it is dependent upon the readiness of each facility but hopefully most facilities will be ready to begin on July 1.”
Executive Director of the Arkansas Health Care Association Rachel Bunch said, “It will take some time for all homes to meet this, and we’ll do it individually as they meet that criteria and adjust their physical spaces, but we’re dedicated to doing this carefully and adjusting as we go along.”
Visitors will be screened and masks should be worn. Although outdoor visits are preferred, indoor visits will be allowed when the weather is too hot or if residents cannot be safely moved outside. Facilities will also need to modify both indoor and outdoor space to allow for proper social distancing. Scheduled visitation systems will need to be in place along with frequent sanitization.
“Visitation won’t look the same at our facilities. We are busy adapting and preparing all of these spaces and educating staff and communicating with family members about these new requirements, but we really look forward to seeing these visits happen in our homes,” Bunch said.
The guidance includes expanding activities and making beauty salons and communal dining available for residents again.
Jerry Sharum, director of the Arkansas Department of Health’s division of provider services and quality assurance, noted that there is now three months worth of data on nursing homes indicating that only one-third of nursing homes have active cases.
“About 80 percent of those are in about 12 percent of facilities with those active cases and only five percent of nursing home totals overall,” he said. “Baseline testing is also indicating and showing strongly that our positive test rate is less than one percent, and that’s for 14,000 tests that we’ve completed already.”
“This data indicates that targeted public health measures and related interventions can work and that we can treat facilities differently perhaps based on their circumstances, both facility by facility but also by way of their facility types – like I mentioned there are several different types of long-term care facilities. There are different populations including those that serve exclusively children as opposed to those that serve older folks. All of that indicates that we can begin, as the Governor mentioned, to start the process of reopening in a measured and safe way,” he said.
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith noted that if social distancing is practiced and masks are worn, then transmission is unlikely from an asymptomatic individual.
“Even when there’s an asymptomatically infected individual, when we’ve practiced social distancing [and] wearing masks etc, we’ve not seen secondary cases,” he said. “As they follow these guidelines that we have, they should allow visitors to come in. Even if we did have someone who is asymptomatically infected, it still would not have transmission or be very unlikely to have COVID-19 transmission if these guidelines are followed.”
Reporting contributed by Tyler Hale