Many of Michigan's elderly nursing home residents cannot accept visitors. Photo via Shutterstock.
Many of Michigan's elderly nursing home residents cannot accept visitors. Photo via Shutterstock.

Visitation rules for nursing homes are being revised thanks to the successful efforts to vaccinate Michiganders in long-term care.

LANSING, Mich.—Working with pharmacies, Michigan got 200,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine into nursing homes across the state. This was part of an aggressive push to prioritize vaccinations for residents and staff at nursing homes, and that effort is paying off. 

Since the end of December, new COVID-19 diagnoses in Michigan’s nursing homes have fallen by 91%. That’s good news to those living and working in long-term care facilities and to their loved ones. 

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Over a third of Michigan’s coronavirus deaths have been connected to long-term care facilities like nursing homes. That traces back to the early days of the pandemic, where the disease ravaged communities living in close quarters who were especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Adding to that, unclear direction from the state of Michigan compounded by an absence of federal leadership on the issue from the Trump administration led to misunderstandings about how the nursing homes across the state were supposed to handle patients with the virus.  

How Nursing Homes Overcame a Hard 2020

Laurie Pohutsky’s mother works in an assisted living facility in Wayne County. As a state representative from Livonia, Pohutsky (D) used her own background as a microbiologist and her mother’s first-hand experience in a nursing home to help Gov. Gretchen Whitmer craft clearer, more helpful guidelines for assisted living and long-term care on the treatment of infected residents that helped bring Michiganders through 2020 to get the vaccinations they needed in 2021.

“The policies that were in place worked to protect both those that worked there and are residents,” Pohutsky explained to The ‘Gander. “It was good government.”  

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In her consultation with Gov. Whitmer, she advocated for things like providing personal protective equipment, ensuring that coronavirus isolation wards in nursing homes have their own separate staff, and making it easier to report violations of coronavirus containment policies.

With the success of the vaccine, nursing home leadership can now address another major problem Michigan’s nursing homes are facing. “Morale is struggling,” Pohutsky said, referring to the population living in these facilities.

The loneliness of the pandemic has been hard on most Michiganders, but few groups were hit as hard by isolation as older Michiganders. Patients in long-term care have been especially high-risk for the coronavirus. Many facilities have had to restrict visitation considerably, leaving family members to visit their loved ones  from outside through a closed window. Now that’s changing.

With an order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued Tuesday, Michigan’s nursing homes can ease visitation restrictions. However, visitors will still be required to be COVID tested, masked, and maintain social distancing.

This tracks with Pohutsky’s expectations that Michigan is now in a situation where it can reexamine policies it used to need to keep residents safe, like visitation.

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Some facilities have had innovative solutions in the meantime.

How Powerful Reuniting Michigan Families Can Be

Phyllis Schmuhl and Linda Whitmyer got to visit their father, Clarence Whitmyer, in a heated vestibule at the Cass County Medical Care Facility. After months of visits placing panes of glass between father and daughters, Bridge reports that new “hugging stations” springing up around Michigan have given families the chance to reunite.

“That was good,” Schmuhl told Bridge, taking a deep breath as an aide wheeled her father back down the hallway. “He looks good.”

Pohutsky is optimistic that thanks to the amazing success the vaccine has had in places like where her mother works, more families will get to feel the way Schmuhl felt. 

“You and I can talk about the difficulty of life during the pandemic and limited social interaction and things like that—it’s much more profound for people in nursing homes,” Pohutsky said.