Following a series of lifted restrictions by Gov. Tim Walz this month, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) provided some leeway for congregate living settings, by expanding options for visitations beyond a computer screen or through a window.

Although MDH did release new guidelines for visits through a residents window, they also released guidelines for in-person visits, to be held outdoors.

“We continue to recognize how the effects of isolation can have serious impacts on the health and well-being of residents and know that visitor restrictions have been extremely challenging for all of us over these last several months,” MDH said in a press release.

The guidance, it said, will allow residents, families and friends to connect with each other in a “time when it is needed most” while still abiding by safety precautions. The guidance went into effect immediately and all long-term care facilities were encouraged to put it into place.

Throughout the pandemic, mental health professionals have stressed the need for connection between people to stave off loneliness, depression, reduce stress and simply keep spirits up in an uncertain time. MDH, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the Minnesota Psychological Association and more have resources and information detailing the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MDH noted that with older adults and those in congregate living settings facing the highest risk for serious illness or even death, they have been the most confined to their living spaces and had many daily activities restricted, making them vulnerable to loneliness.

Madelyn Blaha, an administrator for Little Falls Health Services, said the staff is excited to start offering in-person visitation for residents.

“Outdoor visits are the best step to safely reconnect family members and their loved ones while we continue in our efforts to prevent and limit the transmission of this virus,” she said. “These visits are an exciting and welcomed step forward for everyone involved and we look forward to the day we can open our doors to families visitors and volunteers.”

Horizon Health’s congregate living facilities spent the week of June 22 planning and implementing visitation guidelines and loved ones will be able to start in-person visitation Monday, said Director Shelly Hanneken.

“It will be by appointment, so the primary contact people are going to know what that schedule looks like. Then we will ensure that we can try and get as many people as possible in that area for their loved one and also ensure that we can include that 6-foot social distancing to make sure that everyone stays safe,” she said.

Hanneken said all guidelines issued by the state will be followed to ensure safety of residents, their visitors and staff.

“The guideline clearly states that masks must be worn by visitors. We will offer hand sanitizer when they come in and we will also be doing the COVID-19 checks such as temperature, how they feel, if they’re ill,” Hanneken said.

All facilities have been utilizing window visits since restrictions were put into place in March, she said, and they have been used frequently. Staff have also helped residents communicate with their families and friends digitally. But, next week will be the first time residents have seen their loved ones in person, without a window between them.

All contact people for residents in Horizon Health facilities will receive information on visitation procedures, Hanneken said.

Facilities are encouraged to implement the following guidelines: establishing visitation hours, cleaning visitation areas, screen all visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, ensure visitors and residents abide by social distancing, require visitors and residents to wear masks if possible, only allow for outdoor visitation, maintain a visualisation of each resident during the visit while allowing for privacy and provide sanitizer for all people involved in the visit.

Residents with COVID-19 symptoms or those in quarantine are not eligible for in person visitation. Any physical touching such as hand holding, hugging or kissing is not allowed during a visit.

Families interested in a window visit for any purpose should consider scheduling a visit beforehand to ensure their loved one is prepared and not surprised by people outside of their room, MDH notes that facility staff will also be able to arrange for a phone conversation during the visit if the window remains closed.

If a window is opened for conversation, MDH recommends both parties should sit 3 feet from the window and wear a mask for protection.

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