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What will it take to allow physical contact at Vermont long-term care facilities?

Published: Aug. 18, 2020 at 6:51 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 19, 2020 at 8:33 AM EDT
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SHELBURNE, Vt. (WCAX) - A vaccine: that’s what it will take for families to have physical contact with loved ones in the state’s long-term care facilities. That news is a blow to families who have been waiting for months to be able to hug or hold hands again.

Our Cat Viglienzoni looked into this after getting an email from a woman whose mother is in long-term care. She loves the care her mother is getting and thinks the governor is doing a great job handling the COVID-19 crisis. But she says some of what the long-term care guidance does and doesn't allow-- doesn't make sense.

"Has been married to my mom for about 62 years or so," said Cynthia Williamson of Cambridge.

Williamson’s parents live in Shelburne. Both are in their 80s. Her dad lives alone. Her mom is in memory care at The Arbors.

"Probably getting the best care in the world," Williamson said.

But even the best care in the world can't replace physical contact. Contact that Williamson says they need to have meaningful interactions with her mother.

"If you're six feet away, eight feet away with a mask-- she doesn't even know you're there," Williamson said.

She knows it isn’t up to the Arbors. They’re following the state’s guidelines. Visits have to be six feet apart with masks. It means her father can’t have breakfast with his wife anymore, something that they had done for more than 60 years of marriage.

But their daughter contacted us when she got a letter this week saying her mother could have her hair or nails done again with a salon professional. Knowing how badly her father wanted to hold her mother's hand, she said allowing a stranger to that and not him didn't feel right.

"The people in their 80s or 90s, they're going to follow the rules, they're not going to complain. They're just going to sit and wait and suffer in silence and that's not right," Williamson said. "It's not right that a manicurist can hold my mom's hand and my dad can't."

I took her concerns to the top and asked Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith when families would be able to have physical contact with their loved ones in long-term care again.

"To be honest, Cat, I think we're going to need a vaccine," Smith said.

Smith says because seniors are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, they need to keep all of the precautions in place like physical distancing and masks.

“It’s not the only individual that we need to protect, it’s the entire facility that we need to protect,” Smith said. “A lot of these guidelines are in protection of not only the individual but the entire facility.”

Williamson says she understands why the whole family couldn’t visit, but she wants the state to go back and reconsider whether elderly spouses could be allowed the same kind of contact as a stylist.

"Have a little heart and let the spouse visit if they're 80 or 90 and following the rules and living alone," Williamson said. "That's all I'm asking."

Smith did say he would regroup with his team to take another look at the guidance for long-term care visitation. I looked at that guidance and didn’t see any reopening phase that included visits with physical contact between family members and residents.

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