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Some Senior Care Facilities In Mass. Ban Non-Essential Visitors

Update 3/14/20: Benchmark Senior Living is also restricting visitors to its 31 communities in Massachusetts. “Only outside healthcare providers, private duty caregivers, and family members either providing care or having a loved one receiving end-of-life care are allowed admittance,” the company said in a statement released Saturday.

One of the largest senior care operators in Mass. — Hebrew SeniorLife — announced Friday afternoon that no non-essential visitors will be allowed to visit its nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other short- and long-term care centers because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

"Today, our number one focus is prevention," Helen Chen, HSL chief medical officer, wrote in an email to residents and families. "Our goal is keeping COVID-19 from entering any of our campuses."

To that end, Chen wrote, "We are restricting visitors to all of our communities, which includes, but is not limited to, family members and private duty aides. Limited exceptions may be made for end-of-life, immediate risk, and other essential situations as assessed and approved by campus leadership on a case-by-case basis."

Lou Woolf, HSL president and CEO, said this wasn't an easy decision. For weeks, he and his team weighed two things: preventing the spread of the virus at their facilities and watching out for residents’ emotional and psychological well-being.

Up until now, the balance has been in favor of emotional well-being, which meant allowing visitors. But not anymore, he said.

"This has gotten to the point where we believe the infection control benefits exceed the emotional concern," he said. "And we believe this is the right thing to do."

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Seema Verma, administrator for the national Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said her agency will issue similar guidance for nursing homes across the country soon.

"These temporary national blanket waivers are reserved for the rarest of circumstances, and they represent a massive mobilization of our country’s resources to combat this terrible virus," Verma said. "We fully appreciate that this measure represents a severe trial for residents of nursing homes and those who love them. But we are doing what we must to protect our vulnerable elderly."

The new Hebrew SeniorLife policy came just days after the state’s Department of Public Health and Executive Office of Elder Affairs issued visitor guidelines for long-term care facilities. Those guidelines established standards for screening visitors, though they stopped short of banning all non-essential visits.

Social isolation is a common problem for older adults in long-term care facilities, which is why Woolf said HSL is stepping up efforts to help residents connect electronically with loved ones. At some of the facilities, regularly scheduled social events, like the photography club, have also moved online. Woolf said residents in assisted and independent living are still free to socialize with one another, though residents are encouraged to practice good hygiene and social distancing.

Older individuals, especially those with certain pre-existing health issues, like lung disease or diabetes, are at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is advising vulnerable populations to limit close contact with other people, avoid crowds and stay home as much as possible if there’s an outbreak in the community.

Hebrew SeniorLife has six facilities in the Greater Boston area that house over 2,500 people.

This article was originally published on March 13, 2020.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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