AUSTIN (KXAN) — Essential family caregiver: those were the words Genny Lutzel has been waiting to hear for months.

Her mother, Paula, lives in an assisted living home, which has been closed to visitors since March when the coronavirus began to threaten elderly residents inside. Lutzel joined the group Texas Caregivers for Compromise—Because Isolation Kills Too to advocate against isolation for residents in long-term care facilities.

“We did not believe we would ever see our loved ones alive again,” Lutzel said.

That is, until last Thursday.

Genny Lutzel visits her mother at the window of her assisted living facility. (Photo provided by: Genny Lutzel)

Governor Greg Abbott and state health officials announced expanded visitation guidelines for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Beginning Sept. 24, new guidelines would allow two people to be trained as “essential family caregivers” for each resident—a plan Lutzel’s group has been requesting for months.

In that moment, she cried tears of joy.

“That moment gave me the hope that we have been looking for for six months,” she said.

A week later, she’s still waiting to see her mom.

What’s new?

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission posted the new guidelines a full week after the governor’s announcement. Now, long-term care facilities have to work through the 15-page document and decide if and how their facility can facilitate the new visits.

“From a practical standpoint, that will be very difficult,” Mary Nichols told KXAN Investigators. “Facilities will need time to review the guidelines, develop their own policy, and put together the training required.” 

Nichols started the Facebook group, Texas Caregivers for Compromise and sent several petitions to the governor, calling for the Essential Family Caregiver plan. The day after the announcement, she raced out and got tested for the coronavirus. She wanted to be prepared.

Mary Nichols is petitioning the Governor of Texas to change the nursing home restrictions keeping her from seeing her mother (Photo by: Mary Nichols)

According to the new state guidance for nursing homes, the two essential family caregivers must schedule their visits separately, for two hours at a time. The nursing facility can determine a longer, or shorter, time slot is necessary.

The resident and caregiver must wear a face mask and other personal protective equipment during the visit. The caregiver must also have a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 14 days before the visit, and nursing facilities can also decide to perform rapid tests prior to the caregiver entering the building as well. The guidance urges facilities to come up with a “testing strategy.”

  • Read the full guidance for nursing homes here.

The state will also allow facilities to apply for a new visitation status, where they can conduct indoor visits through plexiglass for other friends and visitors. To be approved, a facility must have a separate unit or wing designated for patients who have tested positive or negative for COVID-19.

Nichols’ mother lives in a skilled nursing facility, regulated by the federal government, where providers have to juggle newly-released guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well.

“This is extremely complicated and will require a lot of patience from family members,” she said.

It’s been 196 days since Nichols saw her mother.

Physical touch

Stephanie Kirby hurried through the day on Sept. 24—calling staff at the Denton State Supported Living Center, getting a COVID-19 test, completing the required safety training and digging through the state website for the most updated visitation guidelines to make sure she has met all the criteria.

For families like hers, the most important paragraph of the document is buried on page six.

It reads, “Essential caregiver visitors do not have to maintain physical distancing between themselves and the resident they are visiting, but must maintain physical distancing between themselves and all other residents and staff.”

Petre, Kirby’s son, is 28 years-old but functions mentally like a three-year old. Kirby said he is nonverbal and has been known to harm himself at the state-run facility where he lives. She worries that behavior has increased during the pandemic, and she’s convinced being with him in-person is one of the only remedies.

Petre Kirby, 28, has been living at the Denton State Supported Living Center for more than three years. His mother is one of the many caregivers to call on Gov. Abbott to loosen visitor restrictions at state institutions and assisted-living facilities (Photo/Stephanie Kirby).

“I almost won’t believe it ’til I walk through the doors,” she texted KXAN Investigator Avery Travis.

  • Read the full guidance for Intermediate Care Facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities here.

Kirby said she checked all the boxes—received a negative test, completed the training course. Now, she’s waiting to be designated an “essential family caregiver” for her son.

“Those words mean that I will be able to physically touch my mom, give her a hug,” Genny Lutzel said. “I don’t have to wait for her to die to be able to do that.”

Yet, at the end of the day, Lutzel was still waiting on word from her mother’s assisted living facility. She got a negative COVID-19 test but said she will get as many tests as it takes, until she can go inside.

“Am I anxious to see my mom? You bet. Am I hopeful? You bet. Have I? No,” she said.