PASQUOTANK COUNTY, N.C. — Thursday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said "outdoor visitation" is recommended now at long-term care facilities across the state.
After months of lockdowns in senior centers to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the policy change represents relaxed restrictions, despite a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Family members would need to schedule their visits, be screened, stay distant and wear masks - but for the first time in months, they are encouraged to see their loved ones in person.
"This is a wonderful step in the right direction," said Lauren Zingraff, executive director of Friends of Residents in Long Term Care - a North Carolina nonprofit. "I think it’ll be a great healer for the individuals that have gone so long during this pandemic without being able to see one another.”
Zingraff said outdoor visitation is desperately need for many seniors in North Carolina care facilities.
“We have had residents who have basically felt like if I’m not going to see my family any more, why should I keep living," Zingraff said. "It’s very dangerous to go this long without having any contact with the outside world, it’s almost like being a prisoner in solitary confinement.”
In an effort to protect seniors from the virus, advocates said the lockdowns are likely to have contributed to a different problem.
“The greater threat at this point has been the loneliness, the isolation, the depression of not seeing a family member or caregiver for such a long time," Zingraff said.
However, long term care facilities are particularly risky spots for COVID-19.
Among outbreaks in North Carolina, 54% of all deaths are connected to nursing homes and care facilities. In comparison, just 7% of outbreak cases are connected to these facilities.
The North Carolina recommendation is not a mandate - nursing homes would need to individually allow it.
However, the department explained how it should be done safely – with masks, social distancing, symptom screening, and scheduling of visits.
“I believe it is safe, and that long-term residents will be safe as long as we stress the recommendations in the new policy are followed," Zingraff said.
The NCDHHS plan says outdoor visitation should not be allowed if there’s an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at a facility.