After spending much of the past year apart, residents of long-term care facilities and their families are now able to visit with each other in a way that more closely resembles a pre-pandemic normal.

With Tennessee’s nursing, assisted living and residential homes for the aged nearing fully immunized status at the end of February, the Tennessee Department of Health lifted statewide visitation restrictions effective Feb. 28. Nursing homes and other facilities were referred to the federal guidance provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), according to a news release, and on March 10, CMS released guidance for indoor visitation in nursing homes.

Locally, Durham Hensley Health & Rehabilitation and Morning Pointe Senior Living are among those to cautiously open doors to begin allowing indoor visits by appointment.

“We are now allowing in-room visitation, but visitors have to always have a mask on,” said Mattie Gilliam, entrance health screener at Durham Hensley. “The process of getting them in there is a little lengthy, but it’s well thought out and effective so far.”

Gilliam said her position is a new one created due to the pandemic, although she has been with Durham Hensley for five years, and it is her role to screen potential visitors and ensure that those entering the building are healthy and follow the guidelines.

The first part of the process, Gilliam explained, is that she gives visitors a paper mask at the door.

“Even if they have their own mask, I give them one and just have them put theirs in their pocket,” she said. “Then there is a series of 12 questions I’ve got to ask them, and if they pass all the questions, I will take their temperature.”

Visitors who do not have an elevated temperature are then allowed in, but the process does not end there.

“Then they sanitize their hands and they can come around my desk to scan their feet with a UV light. They just step on the scanner, and it literally burns all the germs off of their feet, just in case they’ve got traces of COVID on them from going into a store or something,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said while there are many steps to the process at Durham Hensley, safety is most important.

“We have had COVID in our building, and we have seen what can happen. We were one of the last to get it because of our precautions, but I’m not giving COVID that power now,” Gilliam said. “This too shall pass, and that is what our staff and our patients are realizing. God is big enough to move that mountain, and this too shall pass. If family members have to go through a long process to come in here, then that is what’s going to happen.”

Morning Pointe Senior Living announced in the monthly newsletter for April that in-person visits would be allowed indoors.

“What we’re doing right now is by appointment, typically Monday through Friday, we are allowing two visitors per resident for a one-hour visit. We can have a maximum of six people in the building at a time,” Business Office Director at Morning Pointe Tonda Reaves said. “We have an appointment book, so we can schedule three families per hour.”

Reaves said the process at Morning Pointe also includes mask requirements, temperature screens and paperwork for families.

“We have contacted each family member and sent out letters, so they know what to expect,” Reaves said.

Both Reaves and Gilliam said residents of Morning Pointe and Durham Hensley have been happy since indoor visits have been allowed.

“They’re excited,” Reaves said. “We were doing porch visits before it got cold, but it has been a while since they have been able to see their families. It has been nice for us to see them, too.”

“Since visitation has been allowed, I have been blessed to see more patients smile,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said families have been visiting patients at Durham Hensley outside their window or, by appointment, at opposite sides of a table fitted with a plexiglass panel down the middle.

“It’s better than nothing, but it has been hard for some of the patients, especially if they can’t hear or they’re not mobile. They’re happier now since they finally got to see their families for the first time in so long,” Gilliam said.

Life Care Center of Greeneville is also allowing in-person visits, according to Executive Director Misty Key, using guidance from both CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We are so thankful that our residents can have visitors again," Key stated. "It's been tremendous for both the residents and their families, and you can see their faces light up to get to see their loved ones. If the resident is vaccinated, they are even able to hug each other again or hold each other's hands."

Key noted that, according to the guidelines, new residents who have not been vaccinated must quarantine for 14 days, but those who have been vaccinated are able to fully join life at the facility, including having visitors. For residents who have to quarantine, she said staff helps facilitate family communication by phone, video chat and window visits. 

"We continue to stay vigilant in following infection control protocols, but we are glad to be able to meet our residents' social needs on this deeper level now," Key stated. 

A letter distributed to family members of Laughlin Healthcare Center, which is operated by Ballad Health, said that in-house visits have resumed by appointment. Appointments are scheduled for 30 minute windows, and two family members are allowed to visit at a time. Visitors must wear appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, observe social distancing and be screened, including temperature reading, before entering. COVID-19 rapid tests will also be offered, according to the letter.

A post dated March 17 to the Signature HealthCARE of Greeneville Facebook page indicated Signature HealthCARE would also allow visitation by appointment per the new CMS guidelines.

Requests for information from Brookdale Senior Living of Greeneville were not returned as of press time on Tuesday.