OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday announced a four-step plan to begin allowing long-term care facilities like nursing homes to accept visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Such facilities were some of the earliest to see restrictions as Washington’s outbreak initially centered around a Kirkland nursing home. In response, Inslee in March ordered limitations on care facilities’ visitors as the state began to confront the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a news conference Thursday, Inslee said the state has come far enough in safeguarding those facilities against the virus to begin a gradual process to open them to visitors.
“This is a day of opening, this is a joyous celebration, in my view, of families being able to be together again,” he said, of the plan that takes effect Wednesday.
Long-term care facilities — which include nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult family homes — have continued to play an outsized role in the pandemic.
Residents in such places are generally older and can have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. which research has shown spreads more easily indoors.
As of Tuesday, 5,694 of the state’s cases — or about 10% of the total number — are connected to long-term care facilities, according to Health Secretary John Wiesman.
Meanwhile, 894 deaths at the facilities represent 56% of the state’s total fatalities, he said. Those numbers include not just residents, but also staff or visitors.
More than 500 of Washington’s approximately 4,000 long-term care facilities have reported a confirmed case among staff or residents, said Cheryl Strange, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Throughout that pandemic, she said, restrictions have been hard on the more the 72,000 people in those facilities and their families.
Loved ones have had to connect with family members in care facilities with phone calls, or waves from parking lots.
Meanwhile, “Some families have had to endure the unthinkable, saying goodbye to loved ones on virtual platforms like FaceTime or Zoom,” said Strange. “Instead of being there at the bedside, holding the hands of their loved ones.
“But still, the toll would have been undoubtedly much greater without restricting those visitations and implementing other emergency measures,” she added.
As recently as mid-June, state officials had struggled to complete mass testing at nursing homes and some other facilities amid shortages of medical supplies.
But with more supplies available now, that round of testing at nursing homes is complete, Strange said. The state is still testing residents in memory-care units at assisted-living facilities.
Under the plan, facilities will be allowed to move forward in phases that correspond to the state’s broader four-part statewide reopening plan. That plan has allowed counties with better public-health metrics around the virus to advance and reopen businesses more widely and loosen some restrictions on social activities.
Among other requirements, facilities will also have to go 28 days without a confirmed COVID-19 case among residents or staff in order to advance to a new phase. Facilities must also keep a minimum two-week supply of personal protective gear, like masks, gloves and gowns.
The first phase in the plan allows for limited outdoor visits, as well as remote, window and compassionate-care visits.
The second phase will allow some limited indoor visits in certain circumstances, if such engagements can’t be held remotely or outdoors.
The third phase will expand those limited indoor visits, and also allow residents and clients to leave facilities as long as they are wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and are screened for symptoms when they come back.
The fourth phase would allow a long-term care facility to return to normal visitation practices, but with COVID-19 protections still in place.
As cases have spiked in Washington in recent months, however, Inslee has ordered some new restrictions and paused counties’ advancement to the next phases in the four-part plan. No county is in the fourth phase of the reopening plan.
As of Wednesday, there have been 60,917 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Washington state, and 1,653 deaths; according to the DOH, 664 of those were in King County. There have been 5,874 hospitalizations statewide.