FARGO — Only 15 of North Dakota’s 79 skilled nursing facilities are operating with visitation restrictions under new guidance easing limitations on visitors now that the coronavirus pandemic is more restrained.

The new visitation policies follow guidance issued last week by federal officials and the rescission of two executive orders by Gov. Doug Burgum, reflecting the steep drop in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Visitation restrictions are triggered when a resident or staff member tests positive for the virus. Follow-up testing is performed within the next three to seven days to determine whether the virus is spreading.

If there is no spread, visitation is limited for the unit where the infection occurred but can be allowed in the rest of the facility, said Roseanne Schmidt of the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ vulnerable population task force on Wednesday, March 17.

“That is really good news,” she said. The vaccination rate among long-term care center residents in North Dakota is approximately 90%, well above the 70% federal benchmark, she said.

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Also Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health issued recommendations based on the new guidelines that state residents should be able to have visitors. The Minnesota recommendations include:

  • A fully vaccinated resident can choose to have close contact with a visitor while wearing a well-fitted face mask, if tolerated, and washing hands before and after.

  • Outdoor visitation is preferred even when the resident and visitor are fully vaccinated, because outdoor visits generally pose a lower risk. Visits should be held outdoors whenever feasible.

  • Compassionate care visits, essential caregivers and visits required under state and federal disability rights laws should be allowed at all times, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status, the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate or an outbreak.

  • Facilities in medium or high infection-rate counties are encouraged to offer testing to visitors. Visitors should also be encouraged to get vaccinated. Neither testing nor vaccination should be required of visitors as a condition of visitation, nor should proof be requested.

“Residents of long-term care facilities need the opportunity to see and spend time with their friends and loved ones as much as possible,” Janet Malcolm, Minnesota’s health commissioner, said in a statement. “As we continue to make progress in the effort to defeat COVID-19 it’s great to take steps like this to ensure residents have those connections and support."

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The new guidelines allow individual nursing homes to make more decisions about visitation. “They do have more latitude in local decisions,” Schmidt said.

Long-term care facilities accounted for 10% of North Dakota’s COVID-19 cases but 60% of deaths — 886 to date — because of their frail, elderly population, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association.

As of Wednesday, six residents and 26 workers in long-term care centers were infected with the virus, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. By comparison, in October, 1,630 residents and staff members were infected, Peterson said.

“So we really are hopeful for this spring,” she said. “The vaccine is what is really going to make a difference and sustain these positive numbers.”

Besides vaccines, the availability of better treatments has made a huge difference, said Seth Fisher, also with the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ vulnerable population task force.

A crucial therapy that wasn’t available last fall is monoclonal antibodies. When given early to those who are vulnerable, the treatment can prevent hospitalization, he said.

“It’s been a huge tool,” Fisher said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Nursing homes in North Dakota have been able to allow more visitation than many other states, he said.

Christopher Larson, a resident of Luther Memorial Home in Mayville and an advocate for long-term care residents, said the new visitation guidelines were cheered by residents when they were announced.

“Having visitors has been great,” he said. “The response from residents has been great. They’ve been without it, some of these people, for a year.”

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