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Visiting a nursing home? A COVID-19 test is recommended but not mandatory

NYS updated visitation guidance to nursing homes on Monday. One local man tells us it's been nearly a year since he's hugged his dad in a local nursing home.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The past year has been extremely difficult on families with loved ones in nursing homes, unable to have what many would consider a real visit with a loved one.

New York State has now issued updated nursing home visitation guidance that will go into effect Friday. State officials say the guidance is in line with federal guidance.

In counties where the infection rate is below five percent, such as in every county in Western New York, a COVID-19 test is not required, but is recommended.

In counties where the infection rate is between 5 percent and 10 percent, a COVID-19 test within 72 hours is required. Anything above 10 percent, visitation is not allowed, unless in end-of-life situations.

The state Department of Health says it will provide rapid tests to nursing homes to at no cost to the nursing home.

Dan Loehfelm remembers the date – March 14, 2020 – the last time he’s been able to hug his dad.

"Everybody’s life got turned upside down that day not just me," Loehfelm said.

He says his dad George, who's in his late 70s, is in Mercy Nursing Facility at OLV in Lackawanna. It's certainly been tough, riding the wave of COVID restrictions, which are extremely limited. Loehfelm says he's able to see his dad once a day for about 15 minutes, except Sundays.

"Now that it’s cold, we’re kind of in a hallway and he’s just on the other side of the door, which again is tough, it’s tough to hear, it’s tough for us to hear him and him to hear us," Loehfelm said.

The state recommends visitors to Western New York nursing homes to be tested for COVID, prior to entry, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

"Because you can still have it in your nasal passage and so it is beneficial to be tested to make sure you don’t have it in your nasal passage," said Dr. Howard Zucker, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health. 

Capacity limits will be increased at the end of the week, as well.

"The maximum number of visitors you can have is to accommodate for 20 percent of residents in the facility," Zucker said.

This is up from 10 percent.

"We’re trying to make sure we don’t overwhelm the nursing homes with that," Zucker said.

But for Loehfelm, who says most of his family has been vaccinated, he just wants to be closer to his dad.

"If I was in charge, my dad’s been vaccinated, my mom has been, my sister has been, all the residents have been vaccinated inside the nursing home, so why can’t they go in there? Why can’t we go in still wearing masks, still social distancing, but at least sit in his room so he’s not alone all by himself," Loehfelm said.

Medical experts say it is still possible to contract the virus, even after being vaccinated. 

Federal guidance says while outdoor visitation is preferred, visitation can occur in resident rooms and visitation spaces, depending on a facility’s structure and the needs of residents. Nursing homes can also consider a series of factors when considering visitation, such as, staffing levels, access to testing and their supply of personal protective gear.

For months, there has been limited nursing home visitation, so long as there are no positive COVID cases. If there are, staff and residents are tested over at least a 14-day period until there are no positive COVID cases.

2 On Your Side is still awaiting full details of nursing home guidance.