William Johnson had not seen his mother, Mary Johnson, since March 2020. They chatted over the phone daily and he would drop off needed items at her nursing home, Bayou Pines Care Center, 4905 Fleming St. in La Marque.
But the phone calls didn’t compare to when he finally saw her again on March 29.
“It means a whole lot more when you lay eyes on them,” William Johnson, a Texas City resident, said. “I could see that she was doing well and taken care of. It was a joyous moment.”
COVID-19 has ravaged nursing homes in the United States and forced long-term care facilities to limit contact between residents and their loved ones. More than 174,000 residents and employees at long-term care facilities have died with COVID-19 and deaths tied to long-term care facilities account for 34 percent of U.S. COVID-19-related deaths, according The COVID Tracking Project.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which monitors U.S. health care facilities, issued a memorandum in March 2020 restricting visitors and non-essential health care personnel, except during compassionate care visits such as an end-of-life situation. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services also issued mandates for how long-term care facilities should handle visitors.
But the federal government and Texas have loosened those tight restrictions with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines. COVID-19 cases declined 96 percent in nursing homes since the vaccine rollout, according to the American Health Care Association. Many long-term care residents in the United States, like Mary Johnson, who have received the vaccine are able to visit with their loved ones again.
Texas nursing homes primarily followed the state’s guidelines for visitors, said Kathy Thurman, executive director of The Meridian, an assisted living facility in Galveston.
The first mandate from the Department of Texas Health and Human Services in March 2020 restricted visits in nursing homes to residents’ designated essential caregivers entering the facility for compassionate care situations, Thurman said. Otherwise, they weren’t allowed inside the long-term care facility, she said.
Visitors and residents had to communicate through a glass partition and used a phone to talk at the Meridian, Thurman said.
Phone calls were vital to Mary Johnson. They allowed her to remain connected to her family and the world, the mother of seven said.
The second state mandate issued in October 2020 allowed one designated essential caregiver inside the facility wearing full personal protective equipment — hair covering, face mask, face shield, gloves, shoe coverings and isolation gown, Thurman said. Physical contact was prohibited, however.
William Johnson didn’t visit his mother even after the second mandate because he was afraid of taking COVID-19 into the facility or catching it, he said.
FaceTime and Zoom calls were popular during the first and second state mandate, Thurman said. It was an exciting time for residents to connect with their loved ones again through technology, she said.
The third and current mandate, issued last month, allows two essential caregivers to visit a resident and permits physical contact, which has been wonderful to see, Thurman said.
“It has been uplifting for them to be able to hug, hold hands and go outside,” Thurman said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
William Johnson gave his 89-year-old mother a forehead kiss when he saw her for the first time after a year.
“I never felt lonely during the pandemic, but I did miss physical touch,” Mary Johnson said. “I just wanted to wrap my arms around him when I saw him.”
The Johnsons both are fully vaccinated, and vaccinated residents and visitors are allowed to have physical contact for indoor and outdoor visits, said Erika Parrish, administrator of Bayou Pines Care Center in La Marque.
For unvaccinated essential caregivers, however, physical distance is required for indoor and outdoor visits; essential caregivers can have physical contact only during an end-of-life visit, she said.
About 50 of the 78 residents and 40 of the 98 employees at Bayou Pines chose to be vaccinated, Parrish said, adding she expects more residents and employees to get vaccinations.
All of the staff and residents are vaccinated at the Meridian, Thurman said.
Essential caregivers and residents at both facilities are required to wear masks during visits. Visitors must submit to temperature checks, answer routine COVID questions about symptoms and sign-in.
Despite the many stipulations still in place, the return of in-person visits has made a huge difference for the residents, Parrish said.
“It’s nice to go back to some normalcy,” she said. “It was weird not to have families. It makes residents so much happier, which makes me happy.”