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Some physical contact to be allowed at long-term care facilities

The drafted plan would let facilities reopen if they're free of COVID-19 for 14 days

Shalanda Simmons-Laya said her brother, Jeff, has languished without social contact.
Shalanda Simmons-Laya said her brother, Jeff, has languished without social contact. (Submitted)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a major milestone in Florida’s efforts to reopen long-term care facilities to visitors.

Some family members who are considered “essential caregivers” will soon be able to hug their loves one again in nursing homes and eldercare facilities under new recommendations made to the governor.

Under the plan, those who provide emotional and daily support, like a spouse or family member, will now be considered essential caregivers and will be allowed to see and touch their loved ones. Before Wednesday’s meeting edited the wording, even essential caregivers wouldn’t have been permitted physical touch.

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Under the plan, those who provide emotional and daily support, like a spouse or family member, will now be considered essential caregivers and will be allowed to see and touch their loved one in long-term care. Before Wednesday’s meeting edited the wording, even essential caregivers wouldn’t have been permitted physical touch.

State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said he’s unaware of any states that allow direct contact, and Florida would be the first to allow touch if the governor OKs the task force’s recommendation. Rivkees said that being closer than CDC social distancing recommendations is considered an “exposure,” even if everyone is wearing masks.

“If individuals are getting close together, there is going to be spread,” Rivkees said. “The closer they are together. Hugging is more. It really increases an individual’s risk of getting COVID if somebody has COVID-19. The social distance and the masks, they go hand and hand together. I am very sympathetic to the needs for hugging and touching. But if you look at the guidelines for just about every other state that I have reviewed, the distancing and the masks are critical elements... Breaking down this barrier really could increase the risk of the individual who is being visited. There’s no way around that.”

Shalanda Simmons-Lay said over the summer she has watched her brother, Jeff, wither away to nothing. Jeff is bedridden after suffering permanent brain damage from complications with kidney failure.

“Prior to the pandemic and where he is now; it’s like a light switch, it’s like day and night,” Simmons-Lay said. “He’s not eating, he’s just laying in that bed.”

Jeff, 58, has been at Lanier Rehab Center in Jacksonville for months, and Simmons-Lay said she started seeing a positive change in him before COVID-19. She used to visit him every day but now hasn’t been inside in five months.

“Around Christmas time we had him Christmas trees, I mean he was so full of life,” she said. “And it’s just like now he’s just in this dark hole, he’s in this dark hole. And when I went and saw him yesterday, I was standing there and I was like, well Lord, is this going to be my last time that I see my brother? Because he’s a total different person.”

She thinks physical touch is necessary to the support and health of those in assisted living facilities.

“They need that,” Simmons-Lay said. “He can’t wrap his mind around the fact that nobody is there to love on him and hold him and put on his favorite cologne.”

RELATED: Jacksonville couple’s story inspires governor to find solution to long-term care visitation | Woman gets job as dishwasher so she can see her husband again

Simmons-Lay isn’t alone. Mary Daniel, who sits on the governor’s task force, took a job washing dishes at a long-term care facility so she could be closer to her husband, who has Alzheimer’s. “I, as a dish washer, can touch my husband, but when I’m his wife I can’t,” Daniel said.

The plan would allow for re-opening of facilities to the public statewide if the facility is COVID-19 free for 14 days. Each resident can only have five people listed as visitors, and those who aren't essential or compassionate caregivers must stay six feet apart. Compassionate visitors have already been granted access by certain facilities to help residents through tragic situations or at the end of life.

Visitors must wear personal protective equipment when visiting, which could include a gown, gloves, and face coverings. The task force is expected to present its final draft to the governor soon for his approval.


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