GRAND FORKS — As nursing homes and long-term care facilities in North Dakota remain closed to protect their residents from the spread of COVID-19, some worry that the isolation and loneliness spreading in those communities also could prove to be dangerous. The Reuniting Families Task Force, formed recently under the North Dakota Long-term Care Association, will aim to take a measured, tiered approach to reintroducing visitation into those facilities.

"You've got residents out there who have not seen family in two months who don't have COVID," said Chris Larson, who will chair the task force. "If we don't get this opened up in the next two to three months, it wouldn't surprise me if we see cases of people that don't have COVID-19 dying in nursing homes, and it's because of a broken heart, and that's hard for me as a resident to even think about."

Nursing homes in North Dakota have been closed to visitation since April 6, when Gov. Doug Burgum issued an executive order closing all long-term care facilities due to COVID-19. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also published a memorandum on March 13 advising nursing homes nationwide to restrict all non-essential visitors except in "compassionate care" situations, including end-of-life situations.

Larson, a reporter at AM 1100 The Flag WZFG and himself a resident of Luther Memorial Home in Mayville, N.D., expects the Reuniting Families Task Force will hit the ground running next week. Presently, the task force has about 20 members, consisting of state officials, nursing home staff and administrators, residents and family members.

Larson emphasized that the purpose of the task force is not to advocate for an immediate return to normalcy. Instead, he said the group plans to work closely with the North Dakota Department of Health to find the best way to reopen in phases — he envisions first allowing residents to congregate in groups within the facilities, then allowing visitors inside with a rigorous screening process, and then gradually returning to regular visitation.

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Valley Senior Living is one facility that has already been in touch with Larson about exploring safe visitation, said Valley Senior Living CEO Garth Rydland.

Rydland said he's seen firsthand how Valley Senior Living residents have struggled physically and psychologically with isolating in their rooms.

"Our staff do absolutely everything they possibly can to address those needs with people," Rydland said. "But there's no substitute for having your spouse, and there's no substitute for having your sons and your daughters and your grandkids right by your side. So despite our best efforts, it's still very difficult for a number of our residents."

He said that, while he's hopeful that the formation of the Reuniting Families Task Force will help move the process forward, new guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are being anxiously awaited. In the meantime, the focus remains on virtual Facetime and Zoom meetings between family and loved ones, he said.

Reached Wednesday morning after 20 positive COVID-19 cases were reported in his home, Larson said his position on finding a way to safely reintroduce visitation to long-term care facilities has not changed.

"In light of recent COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities, the Reuniting Families Task Force will continue to develop safe visitation guidelines that will reunite families and residents when the time is safe," Larson said in a statement. "We know and realize these times are difficult, but rest assured that the committee is dedicated to developing comprehensive guidelines that will safely allow for families to reunite with their loved ones in long-term care settings."

The North Dakota Department of Health reported 426 cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities statewide on Wednesday, May 20, including 20 new cases in Luther Memorial Home and 18 cases in the Valley Senior Living system.