AUSTIN (KXAN) — Certain family members of nursing home residents now qualify for the vaccine, according to adjustments made by Austin Public Health to its system.

Visitation remains limited in vulnerable long-term care facilities, but last fall the state approved the designation of two “essential family caregivers” for each resident — after months of stringent lockdown procedures at these facilities.

Now, Cissy Sanders gets to visit her mother several times a week in her south Austin facility, Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation. Essential family caregivers have to wear proper PPE during these limited visits and are required to perform frequent COVID-19 testing. Still, Sanders has been afraid of bringing the virus in with her.

“You can go inside your loved one’s room. You do not have to maintain six feet of social distance, as an essential family caregiver. You can sit right next to them,” she explained.

Sanders gets tested nearly every week in order to make these visits happen safely, but she was “stunned” to receive a different type of notification from APH letting her know she was eligible to receive the vaccine. Sanders said she doesn’t meet the age requirements or have an underlying health conditions to qualify under Phase 1B, but she was told she could register for her first shot as soon as this week.

A spokesperson for APH confirmed to KXAN, their internal system was not “recognizing the role that those individuals play in our health care system.”

They went on to explain, “We made the adjustment to reflect recommendations that were made and notified those individuals that they were eligible under 1A per our understanding of the State guidelines.”

“Austin Public Health is seeing the importance of closing that whole loop — that kind of safety net around the nursing home resident,” Sanders said. “Anyone who is coming and going, and they are having that contact with nursing home residents, has to be vaccinated.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services doesn’t necessarily agree.

A spokesperson for the agency said, “I don’t see a category there where this kind of caregiver would fit.”

The state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Patty Ducayet, confirmed to KXAN she was not aware of essential family caregivers receiving the vaccine who hadn’t already qualified under the Phase 1A or 1B definitions.

But Sanders said she’s grateful to APH for providing another layer of protection for her mom.

“I think it’s a smart decision,” she said.

The effort to protect medically-fragile nursing home residents has been ongoing since last March. Texas has had more than 36,000 COVID-19 deaths, and more than 8,000 of them have been nursing home residents, according to HHSC and state records.

The vaccination effort in these facilities began on Dec. 28 and may already be influencing the number of active cases. According to state data, Texas is seeing its longest downturn in active cases at nursing homes since cases began ballooning in mid-October. For two weeks, the number of active cases has decreased.

Mary Nichols leads the group Texas Caregivers for Compromise, which spearheaded the push for essential family caregiver positions to be created in Texas last year.

“We are going on a year. March will be a year since family members have been declared non-essential, and even though essential caregivers have been a blessing, we do still have family members who have only seen one child or one spouse, and they have children who have not seen their parents in a year now,” she explained. “We do not want essential caregivers to be the norm. That was a temporary solution.”

They have joined similar groups in all 50 states in calling on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which regulates skilled nursing facilities, to come up with a plan for “post-vaccination” visits. Nichols also plans to send letters and information to Texas lawmakers, as the legislative session kicks off.

“This cannot be the norm for long-term care residents from now on,” she said.

Her own mother is living in a skilled nursing facility outside of Dallas. Nichols and her brother have been designated as “essential family caregivers,” but she has two other siblings who haven’t had the chance to see their mom.

“She may very well pass away today without that opportunity for those other children to come in and see her,” Nichols said, emphasizing the urgency she and the other members of the group feel.