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Sonoma County skilled nursing homes prepare for in-person visits with residents after rule change

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For the first time in a year, nursing homes in Sonoma County are preparing to welcome friends and families back inside their facilities to visit residents under new guidance released this week by state and federal health officials.

Several facilities said they are finalizing policies that adhere to state rules and could be open for visits as soon as next week. County health officials said the rules do not constitute a total reopening of facilities and some restrictions and mitigation measures will apply.

“It’s not an open-door policy, it’s an opening,” said Dr. Mark Lobato, a public health consultant for the county. “It’s a step forward. I think everybody’s got to be happy about that.”

On Monday, the state announced new visitation rules for skilled nursing facilities, followed on Wednesday with similar guidance from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said the county will abide by state guidance, as it has in the past during the pandemic.

The new rules allow fully vaccinated residents to have indoor visitations in certain areas of the nursing home, even in counties that are, like Sonoma County, in the most restrictive tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan.

However, in Sonoma County and other counties in the purple tier, visitors must test negative for COVID-19 two days before the visit. Physical contact is prohibited unless both visitors and residents have been fully vaccinated. In those cases, limited physical contact will be allowed, such as a brief hug, holding of hands, or assisting with feeding and grooming.

“It’s important to know that there’s a testing requirement as long as we remain in the purple tier,” Lobato said. “An individual who wants to visit, whomever, a friend or family member, needs to be tested for COVID 48 hours before the visit.”

Lobato said COVID-19 testing before the visit will not be required after the Sonoma County advances from the purple tier in the state’s reopening plan and enters the less-restrictive red tier. Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said the county is on track to exit the purple tier in the near future.

Some local facilities said they’ll be ready to allow in-person, indoor visits by next week after they finish revising their policies to bring them in line with the state’s new requirements.

“I’m actually working on a policy now that incorporates a lot of the state guidance,” said Don Atterberry, administrator at Creekside Rehabilitation & Behavioral Health in Santa Rosa.

Alan Herber, administrator of Windsor Care Center of Petaluma, another skilled nursing home, said his staff is preparing a private room that will be used for in-person visits. Visits must take place one-on-one and roommates can’t be present, Herber said.

“We do have a private room that we’ll turn into our indoor visitation area that’s relatively close to the entrance and can easily be sanitized after visitations take place,” said Herber.

Herber said he expects visits to commence by the middle to the end of next week. “We’ll probably have three to four slots a day, five days a week, until we can ramp up and make sure that everyone gets to see their families.”

Crista Barnett-Nelson, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, a Petaluma nonprofit that advocates for elders, said it is imperative for local nursing homes get their policies in place and start allowing visits. The pandemic has forced some of the most vulnerable residents in the county into isolation for the past year.

Nursing homes shut their doors to family members and friends of residents on March 11, 2020, when the state Department of Public Health restricted indoor visits to slow the spread of the virus and protect the health of residents, staff and the public.

The state, in revising its rules Monday, acknowledged the adverse impacts of restricting visits, physical contact and group activities. Such restrictions affect residents’ physical, mental and psychosocial well-being and quality of life.

“Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for functional decline, depression, anxiety, and other expressions of distress,” the state Department of Public Health wrote in its March 8 guidance.

“These people have been waiting a year to see their loved ones,” said Barnett-Nelson. “They can’t wait any longer. It’s safe now if they’re vaccinated, if both residents and visitors are vaccinated. Don’t make them wait any longer.”

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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