Johnson County guidelines would allow visitors at long-term care facilities, with several caveats

The plan to reopen Johnson County long-term care facilities to visitors requires each reopening facility to have passed 28 days, or two virus incubation cycles, with no new COVID-19 cases. Photo credit Senior Guidance. Used under a Creative Commons license.

After three long months of lockdown with visits from family members all but prohibited, there’s a flicker of hope for residents of long-term care facilities. Johnson County and state officials have created a pathway to reopening their quarters once again to a few more members of the outside world.

The county plan, based on state guidelines, sets out a list of testing and screening requirements. It still limits gatherings and communal dining. But for the first time, visitors other than those going for “compassionate care” of a resident in rapidly failing health would be allowed inside the buildings.

‘We want to make sure that it’s done and done right’

The starting point is 28 days with no positive COVID-19 cases. After that point, facilities with adequate staffing, protective gear and an approved game plan, among other things, could proceed to reopening, said county Public Health Director Dr. Sanmi Areola.

Skilled nursing, memory care and assisted living facilities have been largely left out of the conversation the past few weeks as county leaders haggled over what safety requirements, if any would be appropriate for business reopening.

Unlike the business reopening, though, the long-term care plan comes with requirements as well as recommendations.

“We’ve asked the residents to be in and have limited visits for about three months now. It’s a lot of pressure from family members,” Areola said. “We want to make sure that it’s done and done right.”

Seniors have been especially susceptible to the worst effects of the disease, which has swept through nursing homes. In Johnson County, 64 of the 77 total deaths to date have been residents of long-term care facilities. As of Monday, the county listed 12 facilities with ongoing outbreaks.

In Johnson County, more than 80 percent of total deaths to date have been residents of long-term care facilities. As of Monday, the county listed 12 facilities with ongoing outbreaks (see above). Image via Johnson County COVID-19 dashboard.

The county reopening plan, developed from guidelines by the Kansas and federal government, requires each reopening facility to have passed 28 days, or two virus incubation cycles, with no new cases. In addition each facility will need to have a minimum two-week supply of personal protective equipment on hand, plus a pipeline to adequate testing materials. The staff would be tested biweekly.

Facilities would also have to maintain full staffing so that shifts are covered as they were pre-pandemic. It also recommends that staff not work in more than one facility, a problem Areola has often mentioned as a contributing factor to the spread.

Frequent testing required

The plan requires weekly testing of all residents if one staff member tests positive, until there are no new positives for two weeks. All staff and residents should be tested if a positive case is found, and the plan also suggests temperature screening for visitors.

The facilities also must submit their plan to county health authorities for approval, and communicate the plan with families. And there must be ward and intensive care bed availability at referring hospitals for the plan to continue to go forward.

Meeting the criteria doesn’t mean the doors will be thrown wide open, though. Visitors would still be expected to do social distancing, clean hands and wear a face mask. Outdoor visits are also encouraged when possible and visitors would be urged to limit interactions with other residents, such as roommates.

Residents would still be limited for communal dining, but group activities of up to 10 would be allowed, with social distancing.

The guidelines are new so no reopening plans have yet been filed, said Barbara Mitchell, spokesperson for the county health department. There is not yet a timeline for when the first facility might be able to ease visiting restrictions, she said.

The county’s plan warns that the relaxed visiting rules would be immediately reversed if anyone at the facility tests positive.

“It is important not to relent on efforts to keep people safe,” the county’s planning document said. “If anything, opening things up more necessitates that more attention is paid to infection control details.”