AUSTIN (KXAN) – With coronavirus hospitalization rates and case numbers declining in Texas, state health officials announced Thursday they will soon loosen visitation rules for senior facilities throughout the state.

The expanded visitation eligibility takes effect Sept. 24 and applies to a range of long-term care facilities, including “nursing, assisted living, and intermediate care facilities, home and community-based service providers and inpatient hospice,” according to a Health and Human Services Commission news release.

“All nursing homes, assisted living facilities and state supported living centers are allowed to reopen for visitation, so long as they comply with health protocols and have no COVID outbreak,” said Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday.

Abbott said COVID-19 rates have declined significantly since July, and on Wednesday the state saw its lowest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past three months.

KXAN has heard from numerous family members of nursing home residents asking for more options to visit their loved ones, who they say suffer without family contact.

“There’s a very real loneliness and isolation that happens. By opening up, I think the families will be so pleased,” said HHSC Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young on Thursday.

Senior facility residents can now designate two “essential family caregivers” who will be trained and allowed to enter the facility and their resident’s room for scheduled visits. Only one person will be allowed per visit, according to HHSC.

The resident, or their legal representative, can designate the “essential caregiver,” who will receive training on personal protective equipment and infection control, according to HHSC.

“Proper PPE must be used at all times during these scheduled visits, and the caregiver must test negative for COVID-19 within the previous 14 days before the initial visit,” according to HHSC.

“Safely visiting with family and friends is the best medicine and most reassuring act we can provide for our most fragile Texans during these challenging times,” Young said in a prepared statement.

Outdoor and indoor visitation with plexiglass barriers will be allowed at facilities that have designated COVID-19 isolation units. Those visits will only be allowed outdoors, or in COVID-19 free areas, with COVID-free residents.

Kevin Warren, president and CEO of Texas Health Care Association, which represents long-term care companies, said many residents haven’t seen their loved since March.

“Allowing safe in-person visitation with essential caregivers will mean the world to residents and families,” Warren said in a statement.

Senior facilities in Texas have been at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 3,759 nursing home residents and 483 assisted living facility residents have died of the virus, according to HHSC.

On June 4, 2020 – months after the coronavirus pandemic began in the United States and medical experts expressed concerns over people living in nursing homes – the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began publicly releasing data and results from targeted inspections of such facilities conducted by the agency since early March. While initial reporting appears incomplete and the agency acknowledges the likelihood of occasional human error, it also offers a more complete look at the virus’ spread within this vulnerable population. Stricter accountability in the reporting is expected in the future with the goal of further enhancing and updating the data regularly. KXAN will continue to update this map, as more details become available. Read more about this data.