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Senior advocates still can’t make unscheduled visits to nursing homes

A worker delivers supplies at the Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Willowbrook, Ill., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

(The Center Square) – It’s not just family members who can’t visit their loved ones inside long-term care facilities, advocates for seniors with and without families can’t make unscheduled visits and some are concerned about the overall health of those isolated inside.

Since the COVID-19 regulations were implemented in mid-March, the state has limited visitors to long-term care facilities. Regardless, there have been COVID-19 outbreaks and more than half of the COVID-19 deaths in Illinois have occurred in such facilities.

Chuck Miller, deputy state long-term care ombudsmen in Illinois, said because of state restrictions they haven’t been able to physically visit with seniors inside their dwellings since March 16. State guidelines encourage the use of electronic communication such as video conferencing or email.

“One of our areas is looking to having a robot that will be able to go into a facility and it’s a bigger robot with a tablet with their face on there that they can talk to residents somewhat face-to-face,” Miller said.

But, he said using video chat isn’t the same.

“No, because when you walk in a facility you can see, smell and hear things, and now we have to look through windows,” Miller said.

Miller said they understand the importance of not spreading COVID-19, but it’s difficult to be an advocate under such conditions.

“There’s going to be a big hit on the mental health of all of our residents because they’re isolated, unable to see us or families,” Miller said. “So that’s just another obstacle we’ve had to deal with.”

Illinois’ Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is funded by federal and state taxes. The state’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget has $2.6 million for the program. The network across the state has managers from groups like Catholic Charities, or Legal Aid Chicago, or the Center for Prevention of Abuse that advocate on behalf of the residents of such facilities.

Those managers in the state’s 13 program service areas act as the voice of residents. The advocates field calls as minor as complaints about the quality of the food to calls about abuse, neglect and other problems. They also perform unscheduled visits or at least they used to before COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, state officials released guidelines for outdoor visits at long-term care facilities, but Miller said that’s not enough to get the entire scope of the quality of the living conditions and outdoor visits still must be scheduled.

“We just have not been inside the facility,” Miller said. “We have no guidance on that yet. So that’s unfortunate. I think they’re in their preliminary discussions on how they’re going to implement those guidelines. We’ll follow those guidelines to get back into those facilities.”

It’s unclear when such guidance for indoor visits would be released. The outdoor visit guidelines were released last week.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker replaced two state officials who oversaw Illinois’ COVID-19 response in nursing homes. The Illinois Department of Public Health confirmed the deputy director of the Office of Health Care Regulation left state employment on July 20, the same day the chief of the Bureau of Long-Term Care was put on leave. The department did say if that was paid or unpaid leave.

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