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Looking back: A year of COVID-19 in central and northern New York
A WRVO News series looking back at the past year of the pandemic in the region.

Looking back: Families waited a year to see loved ones in nursing homes

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Lisa Dell holds a sign at a press conference with New York State Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy in March.

This is one of a series of stories from WRVO on how the COVID-19 pandemic changed life in central and northern NY over the last year. Find all of the stories from our series here.

In March of 2020, New York state banned visitors to nursing homes, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state allowed limited visitations over the summer. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo changed the rules to allow visits at all times and for all residents. But some family members have waited more than a year to see their loved ones.

Onondaga County Clerk Lisa Dell’s mother has dementia and lives in a nursing home in Rochester.

“We know by being in that nursing home that we have to be the advocates for her to get the proper care,” Dell said.

Last month, Dell talked about how she hadn’t seen her mother in person, since February of last year. When the state allowed limited visits, a nursing home had to be COVID-free for 28 days. Then it was lowered to 14 days. But the nursing home of Dell's mother was never COVID-free.

“Every day, I think my mom’s going to die and I’m not going to be able to see her,” Dell said.

Dell has been a fierce critic of Gov. Cuomo’s nursing home policies over the past year. But last week, Dell finally did get to see her mom in person again.

“I stayed there four hours with her,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave and she didn’t want me to leave.”

Dell said the room was in a little bit of disarray and her mother’s leg was swollen.

“I definitely could see why we should have always been allowed in over the year, even if it was once a month, for one hour,” Dell said. “If anything like this ever happens again, there’s no way they cannot let us in there and shut us out for a year. No way.”

It’s been the most challenging year for nursing home workers as well, said Amy Jennings, the administrator of the Waterville Residential Care Center, a 92-bed nursing home in Oneida County. She said when the pandemic first started, they lost about one-third of their staff.

“Many of the workers, throughout the pandemic, they kind of proved to be the survival of the most-committed individuals in health care,” Jennings said. “Staff at the beginning, some of them quit out of fear of getting the virus. Some realized that health care just wasn’t for them.”

It was a chaotic time at the beginning of the pandemic. Waterville had to reevaluate all their policies and procedures. The facility is usually very community-friendly, with families, friends, volunteers and pets making daily visits. When those visits had to stop, Jennings said it changed everything.

“You noted the increased confusion,” she said. “Some residents were a little more anxious. They were depressed. A lot of time, the residents don’t understand why family aren’t here. And the fear from the families is that their loved one wouldn’t remember them when they were allowed to come back.”

They were hoping and waiting to reopen visits. Then in January, Waterville had their first positive case of COVID-19. Jennings said they came up with a plan.

“We knew what was going to work, based on other experiences at other facilities,” she said.

Most of the residents had their first COVID vaccine and antibodies were available. But still, 48 residents ended up getting the virus and three people died. A handful of staff and residents were sick, but many were asymptomatic.

“I think it went as good as it could have,” Jennings said.

The mood at Waterville has improved since visitations restarted.

Central New York state Sen. Rachel May, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, heard from family members of nursing home residents at hearings held over the summer.

“They saw real decline when they were trying to do FaceTime,” May said. “Some of their family members were refusing to eat. There were people who just got very depressed and lost a desire to live. And it was all because of isolation.”

This week, the governor signed legislation May sponsored that allows personal caregiving visitors at nursing homes to be exempted from any visitation bans in the future.

“They’re really essential to the well-being of the residents,” May said. “There’s a tendency to call people in nursing homes patients, but they’re really residents. It’s their home and it should be a right to have visitors in your home.”

The Legislature is also working on other nursing home reforms that address staffing levels, profit spending, and the ombudsman advocacy program.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.