Embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo has lifted COVID-19 visitation restrictions at nursing homes, which had been in place since the onset of the pandemic last year.
The new guidance, which takes effect immediately, permits visitation at all times and for all residents.
But there will be limited exceptions for unvaccinated residents in areas that still have high COVID-19 positivity rates and lower resident vaccination rates.
The guidance replaces a Feb. 23 directive that required a facility to be COVID-free for 14 days before people could visit — a difficult ask with many of the state’s 600 homes continuing to report sporadic cases among staff or residents.
“We now have three effective vaccines that are leading to significant decreases in long term care COVID cases and a robust staff testing system to limit community spread from entering a facility,” Cuomo said. “Now is an appropriate time to take the next step and safely reconnect this community with their families.”
The announcement comes during a week in which grieving families held events and vigils to honor the more than 15,000 residents in nursing homes and other senior facilities who died from the coronavirus over the past year.
Victims’ loved ones slammed the Cuomo administration’s controversial March 25, 2020 directive that required nursing homes to take in recovering COVID-19 patients discharged from hospitals, which critics say worsened viral infections and deaths of elderly residents.
Nursing home advocates were pleased that the state is finally lifting the restriction on family visitations, but questioned Cuomo’s motives.
“I’m happy the governor is allowing visitations. But I do question the timing,” said Vivian Zayas, co-founder of Voices For Seniors, whose mom, Ana Martinez, 78, died from COVID at a hospital last April 1 after being transferred from a Long Island nursing home.
Zayas said nursing home residents suffered a double whammy — killer COVID and visitation restrictions.
“There are the seniors who died because of the isolation. That number is enormous.
Five or ten thousand people died because of loneliness. They gave up,” Zayas said.
“Cuomo puts out positive news to spin off negative news about his investigations. The change in policy is too little, too late.”
Cuomo, a three-term Democrat, is facing multiple state and federal investigations over the nursing homes COVID policy and claims of sexual harassment.
And Cuomo faces another probe over bombshell reports this week alleging he used state staffers to improperly arrange coronavirus tests for his relatives and favored officials during the early days of the pandemic A spokesman denied wrongdoing but did not dispute the early access to testing.
“We’re surprised Cuomo is still in office,” said Zayas. “Our resolve to see this through is still strong — of Cuomo being impeached or resigning. We want Cuomo held accountable at the federal level and the state level.”
Cuomo, who has denied wrongdoing in his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, said the number of positive cases in nursing homes have plunged by more than 80 percent since peaking in mid-January during a second COVID post-holiday surge.
The state Health Department still strongly advises that all nursing home operators offer COVID testing for visitors.
Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said, “We understand the emotional toll that this community has experienced by being separated from their loved ones during a particularly challenging year. We’re confident that these facilities can continue strong infection control practices that will allow for the safe visitation they have dearly missed.”
Visitors will still be screened for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 through temperature checks and questions about whether they had close contact with someone who had the coronavirus in the prior 14 days.
Face coverings will also be required. COVID testing of staff and residents will continue.
The guidance also emphasized that nursing homes must continue to encourage all staffers and residents to get COVID vaccinations.