Residents of Nebraska’s long-term care facilities could soon get in-person visits from relatives or friends under a new program designed to help them during the pandemic, state officials said Friday. The essential caregivers program will allow volunteers to go into nursing homes and other care facilities once they’ve been trained how to properly don and doff protective clothing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The program was created as a workaround to restrictions that have kept most visitors out of Nebraska’s long-term care facilities since March. Gov. Pete Ricketts and other officials warned that facilities which choose to participate may not be opening their doors right away. “They’re going to have to implement it, and that may take time,” Ricketts said at a news conference. The pandemic has had a disproportionately large impact on nursing homes, as the elderly are especially vulnerable to severe reactions to the virus. As of Sept. 20, nursing homes had accounted for more than 40% of all of Nebraska’s coronavirus deaths.
Nebraska’s program was modeled after one in Minnesota, said Jennifer Acierno, CEO of LeadingAge Nebraska, an advocacy group for the elderly. Florida, South Dakota and Indiana have similar programs intended to ease the social isolation that many residents have faced. “Isolation has taken a toll on long term care residents physically, mentally and emotionally,” Acierno said. The volunteers could also help ease the workload on a facility’s regular staff members, said Becky Wisell, an administrator with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. She said they’ll be able to advocate on a resident’s behalf and bring problems to the attention of staff members.
They’ll also likely assist with simple tasks, such as helping residents get dressed and keeping them company. Friends, relatives and others who have worked before with a resident can qualify. “Essential caregivers have an important role,” Wisell said. Nebraska’s hospitals remained under pressure this week even though the number of patients with the coronavirus declined from last month’s record highs.
Hospitals in the state held a combined 845 coronavirus patients as of Thursday night, which was well above the numbers seen earlier in the pandemic, according to the state’s coronavirus tracking portal. The all-time high of 987 was set on Nov. 20. Nebraska has had 134,710 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,159 deaths from the disease since the pandemic began. The state reported 845 new cases on Thursday.