OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly a year ago, Dr. Amanda Furry was visiting her mother up to three times a week at the northwest Oklahoma long-term care facility where she resides.

“Very important, our visits were, to both of us and all of our family members,” she said.

When COVID-19 hit, they learned there would be limitations on the hours and ability to visit, Furry said.

“Not long after that, we were told that visitation would be cut off completely, which of course was pretty upsetting,” she said. “Of course we were very frightened to not be able to visit and take care of our mom. But they did a great job of coordinating FaceTime visits, window visits (and) pretty much anything that we can do within the confines of the restrictions that they gave us.”

Nearly a year after state health officials first restricted in-person contact in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities statewide, they released a series of guidelines that they’re asking nursing homes and assisted living facilities to adopt in order to allow visitation again.

They said they hoped that the precautions would allow loved ones to finally be able to be together indoors and in the same room as early as the end of next week.

State health officials said resuming in-person visitation will not be mandatory, but they will “strongly encourage” facilities statewide to adopt their new guidelines that they say align with existing federal requirements and provide a framework to safely allow contact between residents and loved ones.

“We know COVID-19 is not fully going away,” said Dr. Lance Frye, interim commissioner of health. “But as cases and hospitalizations decline, we now have the opportunity to establish our new normal.”

Under the guidelines unveiled Tuesday, residents will be allowed to designate “essential caregivers,” who may make in-person visits. Those caregivers must then complete a 15-minute training that will be available online or at the facility. The training addresses areas such as pain management, skin integrity, and other basic personal care information for a family member wanting to help provide care, officials said.

If both a resident and visitor can prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19, a mask is required to have unsupervised contact.

If either or neither are vaccinated, a mask is required and proof of a negative COVID-19 test may be required to have unsupervised contact, according to the guidelines.

Facilities must also continue to follow other COVID-19 mitigation procedures.

“It is probable that visitation in long-term care facilities will not look anything like it was pre-COVID,” said Steve Buck, CEO of Care Providers Oklahoma, which advocates on behalf of long-term care facilities.

State Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, a nursing home and assisted living administrator, said she’s hopeful the guidance will bring Oklahomans together again while ensuring that urban and rural facilities have uniform guidance.

“I want to stress that facilities will need time to implement this enhanced visitation policy,” she said. “So I just ask the public to be patient as facilities navigate through this new guidance.”

She said knows families are anxious to reunite, but it must be done safely. There are also federal guidelines and regulations that long-term care facilities must follow including outbreak testing that may not make the state guidance possible to implement at this time.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said his office has received numerous phone calls from residents across the state who have been frustrated by the lack of access to loved ones.

“I’m going to continue to fight for Oklahomans to be able to safely visit their loved ones, regardless of what facility they’re in,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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