by Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Families are returning to visit relatives in Pennsylvania nursing homes, bringing a year of painful isolation to an end for many seniors. 

More than a year after the COVID pandemic put nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the Commonwealth in lockdown, visitors are being welcomed back

Over the past year, more than half of COVID deaths in the state were among residents of long-term care facilities. But with most residents now having been vaccinated, the infection rate has plummeted and federal officials have recommended easing restrictions on visitation. 

To Bill Johnston-Walsh – state director of AARP Pennsylvania – that’s welcome news, since isolation can cause depression, physical and mental decline among nursing-home residents. 

“We believe that there’s no substitute for the person to have in-person contact,” said Johnston-Walsh, “and a warm embrace that is so critical for the physical and mental well-being of nursing home residents.”

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office is strongly encouraging all nursing home and long-term care facilities in the state to follow the federal recommendation to expand visitation. 

The state says residents who are fully vaccinated can choose to have close contact with visitors, including touching. But Johnston-Walsh cautioned that precautions need to be taken to ensure that infection rates don’t start going back up.

“We have to make sure that we’re still wearing the masks,” said Johnston-Walsh, “that the visits are done in open spaces whether they be inside or outside, and to keep family members and their guests distant from other residents and staff members.”

Each facility must decide individually if it wants to expand visitation, but experts believe most will do so within the next few weeks. 

Johnston-Walsh added that it appears the pandemic has reached a turning point for nursing home residents, and the efforts of state and federal officials to bring the COVID pandemic under control are paying off. 

“As we enter a new phase of this pandemic with the ongoing rollout of vaccines and the growing knowledge about public health needs,” said Johnston-Walsh, “it is vital that these vulnerable seniors are able to safely visit with their loved ones.”