AUSTIN (KXAN) — After months of isolation, advocates and families of nursing home residents are asking, “When can I see my loved one?”

After COVID-19 began to spread in vulnerable long-term care facilities across the state back in mid-March, Texas Health and Human Services (HHSC) officials restricted access to these homes for non-essential visitors, including family members.

One family member described the anguish she felt not getting to be by her mother’s side.

“My biggest concern is my mother being alone and spending her last weeks of life alone,” she said. “It feels like she’s in jail, and I’m so helpless.”

The state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet told KXAN, “We are reaching a kind of boiling point. Family members feel it has been too long, and I agree that residents are too isolated at this point.”

In mid-May, the federal government released guidelines for reopening long-term care facilities. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services outline the criteria that different facilities or states would need to meet in order to safely reopen, including:

  • Case status in community: a decline in the number of new cases, hospitalizations or deaths
  • Case status in the facility: absence of any new COVID-19 cases in the home
  • Adequate staffing
  • Access to adequate testing
  • Requiring residents and visitors wear a cloth face covering and maintain social distancing
  • Access to adequate personal protective equipment for staff
  • Local hospital capacity

The guidance also allows for states to implement these recommendations state-wide, regionally, or on a case-by-case basis with individual facilities.

Massachusetts became the first state to resume “socially distanced” visits for nursing home residents at the beginning of June.

Now, states like Oklahoma and Missouri have announced a “phased” approach to reopening nursing facilities. In Oklahoma, an executive order from their governor laid out three phases of reopening — with the first phase allowing visitors for residents who are near end-of-life or have psychological needs.

“We know that the state is working on a plan right now to allow some form of face-to-face visits.”

Alexa Schoeman, Texas Deputy Long-Term Care Ombudsman

In a Facebook video update on Wednesday, the Deputy State Long-term Care Ombudsman Alexa Schoeman said it is advocating for Texas to find a safe way to reopen homes.

“We know that the state is working on a plan right now to allow some form of face-to-face visits,” she said. “We understand many of you have been waiting 100-plus days to see your loved ones, and that is causing anxiety, stress and trauma.”

Schoeman said the Office of the Long-term Care Ombudsman would update families and residents as soon as they knew more about the state’s plan.

A spokesperson for HHSC could not confirm whether a reopening plan was in the works, but said, “Protecting the health and safety of the people residing in long-term care facilities we regulate, as well as the staff who work there and the surrounding community, is our top priority.”

They reiterated the current state requirements limiting visitors to essential personnel “who are providing critical assistance and have been properly screened.” That includes family members or friends of residents at the end of their life, according to the state’s emergency rules.

“HHSC also has encouraged facilities to implement a communication plan to help families, residents, and others stay informed and connected,” the spokesperson said.

Kevin Warren, President and CEO of the Texas Health Care Organization, said they’ve heard a “phase one” reopening plan is under review.

“There are smiles and interactions that have just been missing for months,” Warren said. “We want to see that happen — but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure it’s done sensibly and responsibly.”

He said there were still a lot of questions left to answer.

“Are we going to have to be testing families and visitors, and everyone who comes in? Is it going to be random testing? Do we have the supplies? What is testing going to look like for the residents in the building and the staff?”

He said the lag time in test results was also still a major challenge for nursing facilities’ ability to fight the spread of coronavirus.

“Now it’s the waiting game because there are only so many labs that are able to process these labs,” he said, noting some providers were waiting 7 to 10 days for results. “It becomes a basic math problem. You can’t fight what you can’t see, and they want to see the results so they can start to work on this.”

As of Wednesday, the state reported 4,900 confirmed coronavirus cases among nursing home residents, and 546 assisted living facility residents.