At first, Gail Manter thought the pandemic wasn’t going to last long and that she might see her husband Tom sooner rather than later.

But the COVID-19 crisis in this country has dragged on for eleven months.

And instead of visiting Tom, 73, at his Hartwell nursing home almost every day as she used to do, Gail only had a few outdoor visits with him during the pandemic. Tom has Parkinson’s and has been at the facility for two years.

Long-term care attendance has been restricted by order of Governor Brian Kemp and in accordance with federal guidelines.

The Manters once attempted a visit through double glass doors. “We tried the glass, but we both cried,” says Gail. “It was terrible.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting restrictions were put in place because nursing homes and other long-term care facilities had suffered a terrible number of illnesses. More than 4,000 residents of these Georgia homes have died – about a third of the state’s confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

But now that nursing home residents are being vaccinated, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman for the State of Kemp has asked to relax its rules and allow an “essential visitor” – usually a family member – to come into the building to see a single loved one to see.

Gail Manter wants this to happen quickly.

“Everyone has to see their family. We need to be touched. ”

The nursing home staff have been good to Tom, she says, but “he’s mentally deteriorating. That’s the worst. ”

Mallory Blount, a Kemp spokeswoman, said Thursday that the state is following guidelines from the centers for disease control and prevention on visits. State officials, she said, “will continue to evaluate ongoing progress in vaccinating these facilities and ensure that future guidelines reflect the risk of COVID-19 to residents and employees, while making every effort to keep our most vulnerable Georgians safe To be able to return to normalcy. ”

In the legislation, a bill by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth would prevent hospitals and nursing homes from preventing families from visiting loved ones in health emergencies, the AJC reported Thursday. If it becomes law, it would go into effect on July 1st.

A controversial question

More than 85,000 Georgians live in long-term care facilities.

The ombudsman’s suggestion is that the essential visitor must wear personal protective equipment, conduct health screening, and undergo regular virus tests.

With long waits to see family members, “people just wither,” says Melanie McNeil, the state’s top long-term care ombudswoman. “If you’re used to seeing your family member every day and haven’t seen them in months, you’re more likely to want to give up.”

The Federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services has relaxed its visiting guidelines to allow exceptions for “Compassionate Care” in September. However, some institutions interpret these exemptions to apply only to end-of-life situations, McNeil said.

The nursing home industry is against changing visits.

“While our members would do nothing more than reunite residents with families and return to normal levels of visits, we feel it would be unwise to hasten relaxation of restrictions before it is safe,” said Devon Barill , a spokeswoman for the Georgia Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities.

“With the vaccine available, we are on the verge of changing the direction of this pandemic and its impact on care communities and policies on visits,” added Barill. “We don’t see any easing of visiting restrictions until the incidence of the virus in the community is lower.”

McNeil, the ombudsman, said a substantial visitor process could mean more work for the facility, “but it will be better for residents.”

For older adults, loneliness and isolation can affect both their physical and mental health, said Kerstin Gerst Emerson of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

These factors can weaken a person’s immune system and raise a person’s blood pressure, Emerson said.

“When your mind is not happy, your body is often not happy.”

The pandemic has exacerbated these isolation problems by shutting off many social interactions. Older adults are resilient, Kersten said, but many struggle.

Manter, who, like her husband, has Parkinson’s, takes part in a Facebook group, Georgia Caregivers for Compromise, which is committed to increasing the number of visitors. There are similar groups in other states.

“My story is a no-brainer compared to others,” she says. “My husband is not dying, but he refused.”

“People die from isolation every day.”

Andy Miller is the editor and CEO of Georgia Health News