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Nursing home visit bill headed for Wolf’s desk

Measure would allow contact even during emergency orders

HARRISBURG — The prolonged isolation of nursing home residents is finally coming to an end, and Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to ensure these seniors don’t have to endure long-term isolation again — even during an emergency declaration.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed House Bill 649 by a margin of 32-18. The bill would require long-term care facilities to allow each resident a designated “essential caregiver” to visit with them during a declaration of emergency. It passed the House unanimously in March, so it is now up to Gov. Tom Wolf to decide whether to sign it into law.

State Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, the bill’s prime sponsor, said she authored HB649 to address the profound loneliness senior residents faced throughout the pandemic.

“I had started hearing stories from constituents,” Rapp said. “People were calling here crying because they were not able to see their elderly parents or elderly relatives in congregate care facilities.”

Long-term care residents account for over half of all COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania. In the United States, nearly one in 12 residents of nursing homes and care facilities have died of COVID-19 throughout the past year.

Along with those deaths is the prolonged isolation these seniors faced throughout the past year. Most nursing homes closed their doors to visitors in March 2020, leaving many residents isolated from family and friends.

“The act of restricting visitation for family members and loved ones in long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic — a precaution to protect both residents and the frontline workers in those communities — was taxing on everyone involved,” said Zach Shamberg, resident and CEO of Pennsylvania Health Care Association, in a statement to Capitolwire.

Rapp’s bill would allow congregate care facilities to establish additional safety requirements for essential caregivers, including limiting the duration of visits, mandating social distancing and requiring masks. The Department of Health and the Department of Human Services would be tasked with creating protocols for visits during an emergency declaration, including establishing a “lockdown” period — lasting no longer than 45 days — when no visitors are allowed.

As COVID-19 vaccinations rolled out across the country, federal guidelines for nursing home visits eased in March. Residents could finally hug their loved ones for the first time in a year. But even after those guidelines changed, state law still largely left it up to individual facilities to adapt to the new regulations. Some facilities still barred residents from seeing visitors under some circumstances.

Though the bill passed unanimously in the House, it encountered opposition in the Senate on Wednesday. Only Democratic Sens. Lisa Boscola, of Lehigh County, Jim Brewster, of Allegheny County, and Lindsey Williams, of Allegheny County, joined all Republicans and Independent Sen. John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, to vote in favor of the bill.

Senate Democratic spokesperson Brittany Crampsie said most Senate Democrats voted against the bill because they worried it could “limit the governor’s authority in the future” if the state faced another public health crisis.

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