Ted Reiff, a 90-year-old physician from Hampton, thinks of himself and his 87-year-old wife, Brenda, as one person.
He visits her every day at the nursing home where she lives. He makes sure she gets the care she needs and speaks to her, even though he has chronic laryngitis that makes it painful for him to talk. He writes letters to the nursing home’s administrators every night advocating for her care.
But, after this week, he’ll no longer be allowed to see her for the foreseeable future.
Nursing homes across Virginia have begun restricting visitors in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from entering the facilities, which are considered to be particularly vulnerable as a result of the virus.
The restrictions began last week after the American Health Care Association, the largest national trade organization representing long-term care centers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending extreme measures to prevent a scenario that has played out in a Washington state nursing home where the virus spread quickly and ended lives.
“What we have found is that experts believe that this is the most prudent step that we can take to protect the residents,” said Keith Hare, CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association, the state chapter of the AHCA. “We have to put the health and well-being of these residents first. ... It really is unprecedented action.”
But some family members and advocates worry that — without loved ones allowed to visit — residents will be even more vulnerable to neglect in nursing homes that already struggle to provide basic care.
“I think that families do feel like they are stretched to the max now with worry,” said Sam Kukich of Poquoson, who started Dignity for the Aged, a grass-roots nonprofit to help family members navigate nursing home issues. “The fact that basic care isn’t being provided — add a virus on top of that and not being able to visit — they are really stressed out.”
One Newport News woman said she was told that she could come in and drop off supplies for her mother at the nursing home where she lives, but that she couldn’t visit with her.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution at the nursing home, said she’s worried that her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and needs help eating, will not be fed without her there because the nursing home is understaffed.
Nursing homes in the state say it was a difficult decision to cut off visitation, but it was necessary.
“Our top priority has been to prevent any exposure in our facilities,” said Fred Stratmann, spokesman for CommuniCare, which runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 615 beds.
“Once it’s in the buildings, you’ve already kind of lost half the battle,” Stratmann said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to keep it out.”
Innovative Healthcare Management, a company that runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 750 residents, has been educating its staff and preparing for a potential outbreak since first learning of the coronavirus outbreak in China, said Taylor Tealakh, an infection preventionist.
Recently, it started screening visitors for possible coronavirus infection before they entered the facilities. Last week, it decided to restrict all nonessential visitors, except in cases where a resident is believed to be dying.
The nursing homes have promised to arrange alternative ways for family members to connect with residents, such as phone calls and video chats.
Jenni Johnson, regional director of clinical services for Innovative Healthcare Management, said its nursing home administration is making a point to communicate with families on the outside as well as hold informational meetings with the residents.
Johnson said that, although the nursing homes are limiting group gatherings within the home, they are trying to ensure residents are being entertained with in-room activities, such as movies, card games and puzzles.
Stratmann echoed the emphasis on communication and keeping residents entertained.
“We’re just keeping our residents to as much of a normal schedule as possible,” he said. “There is a certain amount of anxiety.”
Reiff, for whom the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University is named, said he intends to consult an elder law attorney to determine his rights as his wife’s medical representative, but he fears that the public health emergency will give the nursing home where she is living latitude to ban him.
While he recognizes the danger the coronavirus presents, he’s still worried for his wife and other nursing home residents who rely on their family members to make sure they receive proper care.
“It’s going to put my wife and other patients who have knowledgeable advocates at a great disadvantage,” Reiff said. “Many knowledgeable families have to check on their family members on a daily basis to make sure errors aren’t made.”