Face to face visit

An Arroyo Gardens resident visits with a loved one through a plexiglass wall at the facility's entrance.

It’s been nearly six months since the nation’s collective response to the coronavirus pandemic shined a spotlight on long-term care facilities, highlighting vulnerable, at-risk adults falling victim to COVID-19 by the thousands.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s March emergency declaration gave the Arizona Department of Health Services authority to silo nursing homes and assisted living centers, cutting residents off from in-person visits with family and loved ones. This week, he announced the establishment of a task force charged with formulating guidance for “safely” resuming in-person visits at long-term facilities.

Adults over the age of 65 account for about 13 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Pima County, and 61 assisted living and long term care facilities have had confirmed cases, according to a recent county memo and the ADHS data dashboard.

The Pima County Health Department’s most recent report on long-term care facilities issued July 14 indicated 545 residents and 315 staff members have contracted the virus with 150 residents and 1 staff member succumbing to it.

Virtual visits

Family and friends of residents in assisted living facilities and nursing homes have turned to computers and devices for virtual visits but residents are still feeling the impacts of isolation, according to the heads of local facilities.

“Do you think Zoom meetings are good? I personally think they’re OK,” Bobby Larson, owner of The Villas at Green Valley said. “Well, I would say the same thing here. Face to face is much better, it makes the resident feel, I think, better. It makes the family feel better.

“We have some residents living here that have been married for 50 years and have never been away from their spouse and now they can’t see them other than virtually and that’s hard. That happens in every facility,” he said.

Amy Malkin, chief operating officer for Pioneer Health Group, which operates Santa Rita Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and Arroyo Gardens Independent and Assisted Living, agreed restrictions on visitations are having an impact.

“There’s huge, huge depression. It’s very sad, they’re depressed, they want to see their families,” she said. “Their families are depressed. It’s been since March since we’ve been able to allow visitors in our centers.

“It has an effect, definitely.”

She said not all families have access to technology for virtual visits but those that live locally have the option of visiting with residents and patients, who are able, through a plexiglass wall at the entrances of Santa Rita and Arroyo. The facilities set up the plastic walls with microphones and speakers on either side to allow for face-to-face visits.

Malkin said virtual and face-to-face visits are being utilized equally, “It’s about 50/50.”

She said the company received a $10,000 state grant to buy technology for virtual visits and has used it to buy iPads and computers.

The grant program was announced in June and is being administered by the Arizona Office of Grants and Federal Resources. Facilities can find the grant application here.

Resuming in-person visits

Malkin said Pioneer’s leadership and medical director will ultimately make the decision on when to resume in-person visits once the state gives the go-ahead.

“At Santa Rita the last three weeks we haven’t had any positive employees, we haven’t had any COVID in the building for a couple weeks,” she said, “but then you have a building right down the street that’s not in that same situation."

“My hope is that they put in some guidelines or factors we have to meet to be able to allow the visitation, not just blindly say, ‘OK, everybody gets to go in now.’”

Malkin pointed to nursing home reopening guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS, in mid-May that tracks and follows the White House’s guidance for reopening. She doesn’t believe Arizona has yet to meet the phase one gating criteria.

Larson says that once the green light is given to resume in-person visitations his facility will.

“If the CDC says that we can do it in a safe manner to protect our residents and caregivers then we would follow that and absolutely welcome it because we would love to be able to get families and friends and others back face to face with their loved ones,” he said.

Larson said the assisted living model at The Villas has allowed residents to avoid total isolation because 10 individuals live in each shared home and there are 10 homes on the property.

“We have a better situation in our model, that we don’t have isolation right off the bat because, if everybody in that house is good, which, knock on wood, everyone is, they’ve at least got nine other friends plus the two caregivers on each shift that they can talk to, they can play games with, they can play cards, they can do puzzles.

“But, still it’s the same folks over and over and over, and so if friends and family could come over, obviously, that would make them enjoy life more,” he said.

Prestige Assisted Living said, in an emailed statement, it will follow guidelines set by the CDC and CMS for reopening “which may operate on a different timeline than those offered by state health officials.”

The task force’s first meeting is scheduled for Tuesday and is expected to meet weekly. Meeting times and agendas will be available here.