Vt. health officials: New Long-term care visitation policies in the works

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SHELBURNE, Vt. (WCAX) The coronavirus is keeping families apart, even when they live nearby.

Vermont's 167 long-term care facilities shut their doors in March to all visitors to help prevent coronavirus outbreaks, but the closure has also taken an enormous toll on the mental health of residents and their families. State health officials Wednesday said they are working on revising those policies, but one Waitsfield couple doesn't have that long to wait.

Jim and Judy Dodds have been married for over four decades. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and moved to The Arbors at Shelburne.

"Alzheimer's is a disease that robs everyone of the most precious moments in their lives, and then to have that complicated with the extra layer of COVID -- oh my God -- unbelievable," Jim Dodd said.

Like every other long-term care facility in Vermont, The Arbors has been on lockdown to protect its residents. Jim hasn't seen or spent time with Judy in 10-weeks, and on Wednesday he learned that she is suffering from pneumonia.

"The few little weeks of lucidity that a person in my position gets with their loved one who is succumbing to dementia, and 10-weeks of those have been missed and now my wife has pneumonia. We're at the end of the line," Dodd said.

He says his wife does not have COVID-19 and he praises The Arbors saying she has received great care there and that the staff is dedicated to its residents -- so much so that they gave him the opportunity to visit his wife in her final days. "They said, 'come here, we'll suit you up completely, put you in a separate room with your wife and get to have that visit,' because that's what they do, that's how much they care," Dodd said.

Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine acknowledges the pain coronavirus restrictions are causing for residents, their families and the dedicated people who work in these facilities. "We're grateful to so many of these families for adhering to these restrictive limitations," he said Wednesday. He says the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently issued guidance outlining conditions for reopening facilities and that Vermonters can expect specific guidelines in the coming weeks which could include increased testing and outside visitation. "What phase the state is in in its handling of the pandemic versus what state an individual facility is in."

Levine says the state will have to move very carefully. Over half of Vermont's 54 deaths occurred in long-term care facilities. "How individual facilities can use the strategies we come up with to satisfy the reopening criteria that they've been presented with," he said.

For the thousands of Vermonters kept apart from their loved ones, the changes can't come soon enough. As for Dodd, he takes solace in getting to spend his wife's final days by her side. "Who knew at 76 years-old, I had this many tears left in me for God's sake. It's so hard," he said.