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As COVID cases surge locally, a state and federal policy change has positively affected long-term care facilities

Women looking into nursing home through window
Edith Brady-Lunny

As the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging's regional ombudsman — a sort of watchdog position aimed at keeping a community presence inside area long-term care facilities — Angie Baker has, to some extent, been able to watch firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected residents in long-term care.

Over the past two years, there has been no short supply of challenges, whether related to staffing, adequate amounts of personal protection equipment, changing guidance from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid or the Illinois Department of Public Health.

One of the biggest challenges for residents in particular, however, was social isolation.

"I think the worst damage that was done was residents not being able to get visits from their friends and family," Baker said in a recent interview. "We talked to residents. We also talked to them on the phone. We talked to their power of attorney or family members, and ... they're very, very happy, hugely relieved (by the change). The other thing about getting visitors in to see a person in a facility is that you're really observing how the resident looks. Are they in clean clothes? Have they been groomed? Is their hair wash? It really affects care."

CMS announced a policy change in the wake of a round of Delta variant-related closures of LTC facilities late last year, which followed a brief period of time in which facilities had reopened their doors to visitors. IDPH adopted the guidance a couple of weeks after CMS' decision.

Baker said the 16-county region that ECIAA serves, including McLean, have all adopted the guidance without issue.

"Other than staffing, it's the best thing that could have happened," Baker said, although she noted that, as COVID cases rise, there does remain "a feeling of fatigue" about the "ongoing reality for everyone involved, especially for staff and keeping residents safe."

That's a part of another piece of the long-term care puzzle: Addressing — somehow — a prolonged staffing crisis at every level that's only been worsened by the pandemic.

"It really does have an effect on all the care for residents; it's an issue that pre-dated the pandemic," she said, adding that monetary incentives and scheduling remain ongoing challenges for facilities.

In the meantime, though, removing the barrier that once existed between residents and those who wished to see them is a step in the right direction.

"I just think this marks a significant improvement for people who live in long term care facilities," she said. "You can see with having visitors, it's making a marked difference for residents, by virtue of not being alone all day, for most of the day. I understand why to some degree, they were trying to keep people safe, but they didn't realize people can suffer from social isolation. In looking back, we'll all say, 'How could we have done that?' Well, we did it for the right motive: keeping people safe. But it turns out we're not one dimensional dimensional beings — we need social interaction, meaningful social interaction. So we've lived and learned."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.