Citing increasing vaccination rates, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that the state’s nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care sites can reopen their doors for visits.

Indoor visits are now allowed if a resident or visitor is fully vaccinated, Inslee announced at a briefing in Olympia.

“If your mother is in a facility and she is vaccinated and you are not, you still will be able to visit with her indoors,” Inslee said. “If you are vaccinated and she is not, you will be able to visit with her indoors.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Friday, March 12, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Inslee said he will issue an emergency proclamation next week that will require all public schools in the state to offer students an in-person learning option starting in April. Schools will be allowed to have a staggered start by grade level, and students must be offered no fewer than two days of of on-campus, in-person instruction per week. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) WATW106 WATW106
Washington state to expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, allow indoor visits to long-term care facilities

The announcement was welcome news for the state’s 70,000 residents of 4,000 long-term care facilities, which have been the hardest hit — and locked down the tightest — since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Facilities banned visitors soon after outbreaks were reported in the Seattle area, and residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities largely remained confined to their rooms for most of the year.

“It’s long overdue,” said Deb Murphy, president and CEO of LeadingAge Washington, an advocacy organization that represents nonprofit nursing homes. “The need for hugs and caring touch between vaccinated residents with loved ones is critically important to their emotional well-being.”

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Gov. Jay Inslee’s press conference to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said facilities should allow indoor visits for all nursing home residents, regardless of whether the resident or the visitor is vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s also OK for a visitor to hug or touch a resident if the resident has been fully vaccinated, CMS said in its new guidance in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This guidance, however, does not change individual states’ restrictions.

Nearly all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have received both doses of the vaccine through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. Adult family homes have received shots through the federal partnerships and through door-to-door efforts from health districts and fire departments.

Washington previously had a four-phase plan for facilities to open their doors, and indoor visits were in the third and fourth phase, which required counties to have 25 or fewer new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents within a two-week span. Six counties currently meet the criteria.

The illness has been especially deadly in the state’s long-term care facilities. Long-term care residents account for about 1% of the state’s population, but about 49% of deaths in the state attributable to COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.

Across the state, 144 facilities have at least one active case of COVID-19 among residents or state, which is the lowest number in at least six months, according to Department of Social and Health Services data. At the peak in December, nearly 600 facilities reported at least one active infection. To be taken off the list, facilities have to go 28 days without a positive test.

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Indoor visits aren’t allowed if there is an active outbreak in the facility, or if a resident has an infection, Inslee said.

On Thursday afternoon, Seattle-area facility operators were delivering the news to residents and their loved ones and coming up with plans for how to make long-awaited reunions happen. Lauri Taylor was planning on telling her mom, Patti Taylor, that they could finally gather after Patti Taylor spent a year living in Life Care Center of Kirkland. Patti Taylor turns 97 later this month, and her daughter hoped to have a party for her.

Visits would be “the best present ever for her,” Lauri Taylor said.

As doors open, residents and their loved ones will have to grapple with the effects of a roughly yearlong lockdown that left those inside the buildings vulnerable to the trauma of social isolation. Long-term care workers reported higher rates of residents failing to thrive, characterized by weight loss, lack of appetite, inactivity and a swift decline. One employee described residents as “dying of a broken heart.”

For residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia, a lack of visits and decrease in mental stimulation may have accelerated cognitive decline that in some cases may be irreversible. In 2020, 500 more Washington residents died of Alzheimer’s or dementia than expected based on previous years, according to an analysis by the Alzheimer’s Association, which is 10% higher than normal. A number of factors related to the pandemic could have led to these “excess deaths,” according to the association.

Are you reuniting with a loved one after a year of lockdowns at Washington’s nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care sites? Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell would like to hear from you: pcornwell@seattletimes.com or (206) 464-2530.