MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are making tentative, cautious first steps toward easing visitor restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus as Kansas health officials finish the first round of vaccinations.
Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, told the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday that 83% of residents have received a first dose and 53% a second dose, with some turning down the vaccination at least for now. He said 56% of staff had agreed to the vaccine, according to the most recent data.
He said the push to vaccinate has led a lot of hospitals and some nursing homes to begin liberalizing their visitation policies, with some allowing one visitor. During the peak of the pandemic, visits often were limited to those who were dying.
"We are working a strategy with what is called rapid antigen testing where the unvaccinated person can have a rapid antigen test at the time that they come in to visit a loved one for example in a skilled facility," Norman said. "Until we can get to a higher percentage we just can't fling the doors open."
He said the facilities are working with county health officials to determine what is appropriate.
"We cannot continue to be risk averse," he said. "We will never be down to a risk of zero, so we will have to find a happy medium in there because we certainly recognize the mental health and isolation issues."
Linda MowBray, president of the Kansas Health Care Association, a nursing home advocacy group, agreed that the vaccination situation is beginning to make a difference, although slowly. She added that there are still a few dozen often smaller facilities that the state continues to track down because they weren't on the federal database.
She said the official guidance hasn't changed yet: facilities need to look at the positivity rate in their communities and the percentage of residents and staff who have been vaccinated as they make decisions.
"There are a lot of steps that have to go through and opening up doesn't simply mean opening the doors and everything goes back to normal and anybody can visit anytime and hugs all around," she said.
She said it was a "great sign" that the number of infections in long-term care facilities was dropping but that community buy-in remains an issue.
"We have to keep encouraging keeping our diligence up," she said. "They are coming out now saying two masks are better than one. We've had counties and parts of the state that never wanted to wear one mask. So we still have a fight on our hands."
She said that facilities want to allow visitors but added that the decisions is being complicated by staffing issues.
"Family members aren't just traipsing down the hall to a visitor's room," she said. "They have a visitation area or something set up, and we are still in a horrible staffing crisis so there is a tradeoff when you are spending staff time to facilitate a visit, making sure that other people's needs are being meet."