The state has eased restrictions that effectively stopped Wyoming families from visiting loved ones in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, strictures that were put in place three months ago in an effort to protect the residents of those facilities from the coronavirus.
“We recognize how challenging this pandemic has been for Wyoming’s aging population and their families,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement announcing the changes Tuesday. “Isolation can be debilitating for our seniors. I’m glad we are able to take this step to make in-person visits possible in a safe manner.”
The new requirements allow in-person visitation of two people in outdoor settings. The visitors must be screened for symptoms, and a trained staff member must be present throughout the visit. Staff and residents are required to wear surgical masks, and visitors have to don face coverings.
In the press release, officials said that they hope to test 100% of residents and staff for the virus. The facilities have been the most heavily tested spots in Wyoming; any cases linked to a particular organization has prompted a swift response by the state that has included a broad collection of samples, which are processed at an expedited pace.
Visitation to the facilities has largely been prohibited after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which regulates nursing homes — issued guidance earlier this spring. Long-term care facilities followed similar guidelines. Health officials here and across the country have been most concerned about the virus spreading into these facilities, where the populations are typically the most vulnerable to the disease. The oldest, sickest Americans have died at much higher rates than other populations.
Of the nearly 120,000 Americans who’ve died from the virus, more than 50,000 have been residents of nursing homes, according to the Wall Street Journal. In Wyoming, the worst outbreaks have been linked to similar facilities. A cluster at a Worland facility sickened more than 20 residents and staff and has killed four people, three of which were Wyoming residents. A cluster linked to a long-term care facility in Lander drove the pandemic there; Fremont County still has the most confirmed cases — 278 out of 866 confirmed statewide. Nine people in the county have died.
Other facilities across the state have been closed after staff tested positive. An outbreak at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper, an inpatient psychiatric hospital, caused the initial spike in cases here earlier this spring.
In mid-May, CMS “issued new guidance with recommendations for the ‘reopening’ of nursing homes,” the Wyoming Department of Health said in a memo sent last week. The new guidance gave states the authority to ease restrictions, and CMS provided several recommendations that states should consider before doing so. They include the spread of the virus in the community, the spread of the virus within the facility, staffing and testing abilities, and local hospital capacity.
The loosening of the visitation restrictions in Wyoming is the latest in a recent string of changes to public health orders and strictures here. Over the past month, Gordon and Dr. Alexia Harrist have slowly unrolled many of those orders, allowing restaurants to open first to outdoor and later to indoor dining. Bars can reopen, barbershops can cut hair, more people can gather inside and outside, and schools can begin to reopen.
The virus continues to spread in Wyoming; more than 100 cases have been identified in the past week. Still, the metrics used by the state to gauge the severity of the pandemic here — the percent of samples that are positive, how much community spread there is, the capability of hospitals to respond — have remained steady with the exception of new cases, which is now listed as concerning.
Much of recent spikes have been confined to individual areas. Uinta County, for instance, has had a significant jump since Memorial Day weekend. On May 29, it had nine cases. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had 80 confirmed cases — the third most in the state among counties.
The current batch of orders — which are looser than previous ones but still require social distancing measures and limitations on how businesses operate — will carry through the end of this month.