AUSTIN (KXAN) — As nursing homes and assisted living facilities navigate the new rules allowing for limited family visits, loved ones of some Texas residents are fighting for more access.

“I was so excited. I wanted to jump for joy. It took me a minute to read the criteria,” Stephanie Kirby said.

Last week, the state announced limited visitation at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, after visitors had been banned for months.

In order to qualify for visits, a long-term care facility cannot report any positive COVID-19 cases among staff in the last 14 days or any active cases among residents. They also must have adequate staffing and be testing staff weekly.

“As soon as I saw the criteria, my heart sank, because I don’t know how my son’s facility could ever possibly meet this criteria,” Kirby said.

Her 28-year old son Petre lives in a state-supported living center in Denton. According to Texas Health and Human Services Commission data, his facility has four residents and 18 staff with active positive tests for COVID-19. 84 residents have recovered, and 107 staff have recovered and returned to work.

“You’ve got the amount you would in a small town, and for Health and Human services to expect this number to be zero, and stay at zero? They may as well have said, ‘Stephanie, you will never see Petre again,’” Kirby said.

Some homes have built plexiglass barriers and created other no-touch, outdoor visitation possibilities for families and residents to use, but Kirby said this wouldn’t be an option for her son.

“If we were to get past the other criteria — and we have the plexiglass — and Petre wants to run to mom and hold her hand, is the staff going to physically restrain him and hold behind the plexiglass?” she asked. “Are they going to drag him away when he starts banging his head and and screaming and crying?”

That’s why Kirby stood on the steps of the State Capitol with other families of long-term care residents over the weekend — calling on the state to create an Essential Family Caregiver plan. They’ve compared it to a plan that states like Minnesota and Indiana have already adopted.

For example, the Indiana State Department of Health has designated family members and given them access to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as long as they meet certain criteria:

  • Must be a family member or other outside caregiver (e.g., friend, volunteer, private personal caregiver) who provided regular (at least twice weekly) care and support to the resident before the pandemic
  • Must be age 18 or older
  • Must schedule time in facility agreed upon in advance and no more than two hours per day
  • Will provide care and support similar in nature as before the pandemic (e.g. help with meal set up, grooming, and companionship)
  • Must wear a mask at all times while in the building
  • Must perform frequent hand hygiene performed
  • Must maintain physical distancing with staff and other residents
  • Must sign in upon arrival
  • Must monitor their own symptoms and limit contacts outside the facility
  • Must receive a negative COVID-19 test before visit

Kirby argues this plan could easily be achieved in Texas.

“We are not asking for the floodgates to be opened and all families to be let in,” she said. “We are asking that one family member or guardian be designated as essential.”

She added she believes family will take the requirements as seriously as any facility employee.

In less than a week since the new visitation guidelines were announced, more than 3,000 people have added their names to a petition to Governor Greg Abbott, asking for the Essential Family Caregiver Plan.

KXAN has reached out to HHSC and the governor’s office for a comment on this petition.

A spokesperson for HHSC explained the new visitation rules include a provision allowing in-room, compassionate care visits for residents who are diagnosed by a physician to be experiencing “failure to thrive.”

According to the Phase 1 visitation rules, that means the physician can document “a state of decline in a resident’s physical or mental health.” Signs of “failure to thrive” include weight loss, decreased appetite, poor nutrition, and inactivity.

For more details on the new visitation rules, click here. KXAN investigators are still waiting on response from the governor’s office.