Home for the holidays? Texas long-term care residents can leave facilities, but with warnings

Nursing Home Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With Thanksgiving coming up, Texas nursing home and assisted living residents face a difficult decision: can—or should—they go home for the holidays to see family?

The state of Florida recently lifted visitation restrictions at long-term care facilities and noted residents have the right to leave their facility, as well. Meanwhile, top health officials in New Jersey discouraged families from bringing nursing home residents to any family gatherings.

Texas Health and Human Services officials told families in a webinar that residents have “the right to make an informed decision to leave the facility for a holiday activity.”

HHSC officials recommended families still avoid large holiday gatherings and encouraged outdoor gatherings as opposed to indoor events. They also urged families to follow other CDC guidance, such as observing proper hand hygiene and wearing masks.

In a Facebook Live event, the Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet reminded families the CDC is encouraging people at risk of a severe case of COVID-19 to avoid in-person gatherings.

“I think we can all interpret that most nursing facility residents and many assisted living facility residents would meet that category, so there is a great deal of discouragement about bringing someone home for a visit,” she said. “We know that visit can bring an incredible amount of joy.”

Ducayet urged families and long-term care residents to take the appropriate safety precautions, whatever they decided.

“I really, really want you to think about how important it is to protect yourself and that vulnerable person living in a long-term care facility by wearing a mask unless you are eating,” she said.

Ducayet has told KXAN in the past, long-term care residents always retain the right to leave their facility for any reason, but many facilities are encouraging their residents to only leave for necessary medical appointments.

HHSC guidelines note that a resident will be required to quarantine in their room or unit for 14 days when they return if:

  • They have been gone overnight
  • They are exposed to someone with COVID-19
  • They are exposed to someone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms while awaiting test results

Ducayet told families if they plan to see a long-term care resident, either in the facility under the new visitation rules or outside at a family gathering, they should also plan to quarantine for 14 days leading up to the visit.

Lisa Morris serves as an essential caregiver to her mother in her assisted living home in Forney, TX. (Photo provided by: Lisa Morris)

Lisa Morris lives across the street from her mother’s assisted living facility in Forney outside of Dallas. She plans to pick her mother up for the day on Thanksgiving.

“They’ve had to put up with so much this year. So, I think it’s time to… they need to get out,” Morris said through tears. “I know that the virus is there, and they need to be safe and all, but it’s also important to get to get them with their families during the holidays.”

Her mother was willing to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the facility, and they plan to wear masks while she’s over at their house.

“I don’t want her to take the chance of being out and getting the virus and taking it in, by any means,” Morris said.

Morris and her mother are still waiting to hear from her facility what other requirements and guidelines could be required.

Cissy Sanders lives in Austin near her mother’s skilled nursing facility. She thinks HHSC should require more broad quarantine requirements for residents who leave the facility.

“I am so nervous that a resident is going to leave the facility on Thanksgiving, contract the virus from a family member or friend and bring it back,” she said.

She also wishes the state would require testing and contact tracing for all residents upon their return.

“Especially that Austin/Travis County is seeing an increase in cases in the community, the risk of exposure is a real thing,” she said.

Other Central Texas families are still in the process of making these difficult decisions about the holidays.

“Honestly, today, I haven’t made up my mind,” Nellie Pennington told KXAN a week before Thanksgiving.

Her mother lives in a nursing facility in Belton. She obviously wants to see her mom, but said her mom’s safety is “top priority.”

“We don’t have a huge family,” Pennington explained. “I feel I can keep my mom safe at our house just for a day-visit.”

Still, she’s hesitant. Her mother has just come out of a nearly month-long quarantine process after getting a positive COVID-19 test, but Pennington also worries about the toll isolation and quarantine have taken on her mom’s health in other ways, too.

“She thinks she is confined to her room. All of her world is just… it’s like being in prison, she says,” Pennington said. “It makes her very depressed.”

HHSC laid out more details in an email to another Texas family member, which was shared with KXAN and in a group called Texas Caregivers for Compromise.

An HHSC official said they encouraged facilities to ask residents questions to help determine if the resident was exposed to someone with COVID-19. According to the email, those questions could include:

  • Were you in any crowded spaces?
  • Were you in any situation where you were unable to maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet from someone who was not wearing a facemask?
  • Did you knowingly encounter anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 14 days?
  • Did you encounter anyone who was exhibiting any symptoms related to COVID-19?

If you or your family member is a Texas long-term care resident making decisions about how to handle the holidays, KXAN Investigator Avery Travis wants to hear from you. Reach out at avery.travis@kxan.com to share your story.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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