As Nursing Homes Resume Normal Visitation, Patient Population Remains Down

After 20 months of restrictions, on Nov. 12 family and friends of nursing home residents in Connecticut were once again able to visit at any time, on any day without a prior appointment, a significant step toward normalcy for the population hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This will make a significant difference this week for residents and facilities,” said Mairead Painter, the Long-term Care Ombudsman for the State of Connecticut. “Family members are going to see all the time what is happening inside facilities. It’s not at the building’s convenience anymore.” 

Conditions within nursing homes and other long term care facilities have been a topic of great public concern and media coverage throughout the pandemic, from fast-spreading COVID outbreaks to extremes of isolation and loneliness, to staffing shortages and the increased use of medication for the memory-impaired.

With families and friends back visiting nursing homes on a daily basis, Painter said she expects problems to come to light and be addressed more quickly.

“It will be a different dynamic in the building as people will know more what is going on,” Painter said. “It will be interesting to see what happens.” 

A shift toward home health

Despite the lifting of visitation and other restrictions in the past few months, the state’s nursing home population is still lagging pre-pandemic numbers, hovering at 78 percent capacity after rising through the spring and summer, said Mathew Barrett, the president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and the Connecticut Center for Assisted Living.

According to Barrett, the smaller patient population is a product both of continued staffing shortages and a demographic shift toward shorter-term patients.

“Yes, nursing home operators believe that current occupancy, which is hovering at 78 percent after steadily rising for months, is not a true reflection of the demand for nursing home services in Connecticut at this time because the shortages of staffing being experienced across the state is causing nursing homes to refuse admissions from hospitals,” Barrett said. “Were it not for the staffing shortages nursing home occupancy would have continued on their upward trajectory in Connecticut. This is why the 78 percent occupancy figure can’t be viewed as a true reflection of demand now.” 

Barrett said that it will likely take until the middle of next year – when enough staff will hopefully be hired – to understand what the demographics of nursing homes will really look like after the pandemic.

In contrast, Painter said that she expects that the shift toward shorter-term patients and an emphasis on home healthcare for the elderly would likely persist well beyond 2022. 

“I don’t think we will ever get back to where we were census-wise before COVID,” Painter said. “If you have the choice to stay in the community you will likely choose that now. I think we will see more nursing homes close.”

Painter said she expects to see more individuals and families opt for home healthcare services as so many of the problems associated with nursing homes have been brought to the public’s attention over the last 20 months. 

As of October 2021, nursing home bed capacity is 909 beds less than the capacity in March of 2020. In October alone, three nursing homes in the state have closed according to the Department of Public Health monthly census report. Painter, however, said that several other homes are only being kept afloat by the federal aid that has poured into healthcare facilities since May of 2020. 

“We haven’t seen big changes yet primarily due to funding from COVID. What happens when that goes away?” she said. “It helped to sustain them … this coming year they will start to feel that financial blow … Our system needs contraction.” 

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