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LISTEN LIVE: All Things Considered

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Mass. public health chief empowered to ban admissions to nursing homes during outbreak

The state public health commissioner will have the authority to limit or ban admissions to long-term care facilities like nursing homes if "jeopardy"— like an uncontrolled disease outbreak — threatens the safety of residents, in a pandemic-era policy that was codified into regulations on Wednesday.

The Public Health Council voted without dissent and without comments or questions to approve regulatory amendments that mirror provisions of a public health order that allows for an immediate limit on admissions if the Department of Public Health determines there's a risk of uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 within a facility.

Uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 at nursing homes and congregate care settings was one of the state's major failings early in the pandemic, particularly at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home where more than 75 veterans died.

"To ensure the health and safety of both long-term care residents and staff, the department proposes amending the regulation to expressly permit the commissioner to order an immediate limit on new admissions at the facility if there's a determination that jeopardy exists at the facility," Marita Callahan from the Bureau of Healthcare Safety and Quality said. "This regulation also states that an uncontrolled outbreak or cluster ... would constitute jeopardy for these purposes. The regulation will also clarify that long term care facilities can appeal the limit on new admissions."

DPH held a public hearing and comment period on the changes in August and received feedback from AARP Massachusetts and Dignity Alliance Massachusetts. Both organizations said the regulations are critical to ensuring the safety of residents.

The amendments "will enable the Department to instantly respond to imminent harm or the risk of imminent harm to residents by limiting or banning new admissions to a facility," wrote AARP Massachusetts Director Mike Festa and President Sandra Harris.

"We believe these proposed changes will significantly improve the Department's ability to immediately act against a facility both to protect existing residents who may be in jeopardy and to prevent new residents from being placed in jeopardy," Festa and Harris continued. "We urge you to make these changes permanent so that quality assurance can be guaranteed in long term care facilities."

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