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Indoor visits resume at Sonoma County nursing and long-term care homes

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Before Friday, Patty Feerick would visit her brother Tommy Phillips, 74, at Windsor Care Center nursing home about once a week. Between them was always a window and walls — barriers meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Phillips was inside his room and Feerick, 70, was outside the building. They talked over the phone.

But on Friday afternoon, Feerick got to sit down with her older brother in a special space the Petaluma nursing home has converted for in-person visits, now allowed under state public health rules and returning to nursing homes across Sonoma County.

Colored balloons and welcome signs were placed in the room, which was furnished with a love seat, an arm chair, side table and wall paintings, all aimed at giving the place a homey feel.

“It’s just a real blessing that he’s here and they’re taking good care of him,” said Feerick, shortly after her visit.

Feerick, who lives in west Petaluma, not far the hillside facility, said that although they were in the same room, she kept a safe distance from her brother, just to be sure.

Both siblings are fully vaccinated, but she said she wanted to be extra cautious, knowing that even those who’ve been inoculated can still be carriers.

“I would not want to give him something, make him sick or give the facility something,” she said.

The visit comes more than a week after the state Department of Public Health, which oversees nursing homes, announced new visitation rules for the facilities. They allow fully vaccinated residents to have indoor visits in certain areas for the first time in a year.

Under the new rules, fully vaccinated visitors may have brief, limited physical contact with fully vaccinated residents. Hugs, holding hands and assisting with feeding or grooming are all allowed, restoring the touch of a friend or loved one’s hands now so long missing.

Windsor Care Center of Petaluma, with 52 residents, is one of 18 skilled Sonoma County nursing homes that operate a total of 1,445 beds.

The other category of local senior care homes are residential care facilities for the elderly, which includes board and care and assisted living centers. There are 165 local residential care homes, operating 4,085 beds, according to Crista Barnett-Nelson, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, a Petaluma nonprofit that advocates for elders.

On Friday, the state Department of Social Services, which licenses residential care facilities, similarly loosened its COVID-19 visitation restrictions.

Under its new guidelines, fully vaccinated visitors are allowed close contact with fully vaccinated residents. In-room visits also are allowed, regardless of vaccination status of the resident or visitor, as long as visitors and residents remain six feet or more apart.

Barnett-Nelson said Windsor Care Center is one of only four nursing homes that have begun indoor visits, but more are expected to follow suit next week. The change, particularly the ability to have physical contact, is going to be really be “life-changing” for residents, she said.

“There’s such a direct correlation between the mental health and the physical health of individuals and residents in care,” Barnett-Nelson said. “When you put someone alone and they don’t get to do anything with anybody anymore, their body says, ’Why am I here?’ You don’t have any value of life.”

Alan Herber, the administrator at Windsor Care Center, said Friday’s visit was a first small step toward a more normal visitation policy as the community continues its public health campaign against pandemic.

“We made the visitation room really nice, because that’s going to be the permanent room and we anticipate that we won’t fully open up to families coming into patient rooms, probably not until the end of the year,” he said.

Herber said he hopes to reopen soon dining room service, albeit physically distanced, and other group activities. “We want people to have community dining, because that’s how its supposed to be, it’s a community facility,” he said.

Phillips, the Windsor Care Center resident, is a longtime county resident who lived by himself in an apartment in Cotati until November. After a bad fall, the fourth in 18 months, it became clear that he would be unable to care for himself, said his daughter, Sherry Hareland of Hawaii.

He has some memory loss and now requires 24-hour care. She traveled to the mainland to visit him about three weeks ago. Their time together was an outdoor visit, with a sheet of plexiglass between them.

So Hareland was very happy to hear that indoor visits are now allowed in local care homes. But she said a great deal of precaution still needs to be taken to protect seniors in nursing homes and assisted living, even after being vaccinated.

“It’s not a guarantee once you've been vaccinated that you can't get it because there has been cases that people have gotten one shot and then turned around and got COVID,” she said. “But I you know, as long as all the safeguards are in place, and people are being diligent with hand washing, mask-wearing I think it's gonna be good for our seniors that are in more of a situation where it can be lonely.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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