Deaths of nursing home residents and staff reached triple digits this week and facility officials say the number will likely continue to climb. But a state legislator wants to allow visitors back into nursing homes as early as June 1.

Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, urged the governor to begin planning a “soft reopening” of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities that would include precautions like reserving a room for visitations, screening visitors and requiring them to wear masks and practice social distancing.

But families of nursing home residents and facility officials say it’s too early to reopen the facilities, about two dozen of which have been hit hard by COVID-19.  

As of Tuesday, more than 60 facilities had at least one case of COVID-19. At least 973 residents and staff have tested positive and 108 have died, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Gov. Kevin Stitt promised to test all 42,000 nursing home residents and staff by the end of the month. Industry officials say the testing could lead to a surge in reported cases at facilities statewide, providing a more accurate picture of the outbreak.

State Rep. Lundy Kiger

Kiger, whose district includes parts of Le Flore County, where only one positive case has been reported at a long-term care facility, said families need to be allowed to visit their loved ones in person. It’s “a matter of life and death” for residents who’ve been isolated in these facilities for two months, he said.

“This would change the lives of thousands of people, and would help improve the lives of these people who are losing hope and dying not from the virus but because they are so broken down emotionally with nothing to look forward to,” Kiger said.

Kiger’s mother-in-law is in a nursing home and his wife speaks to her daily but has been unable to see her since federal guidelines required facilities to close to nonessential personnel.

Sheltering at nursing homes can add stress to residents’ lives. At some facilities, they are no longer allowed to gather in dining or activity rooms or visit other residents. If they have doctor appointments, they may have to quarantine after returning or meet with their doctor by video, which can involve technical problems they can’t solve. Dealings with facility staff may be brief.

Jeanie Olinger also hasn’t seen her mom or aunt since the closures. Olinger’s mom lives at Golden Age Nursing Facility in Guthrie, and her aunt is a resident at Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Norman, which has one of the state’s largest outbreaks. The Guthrie facility had no reported cases as of Tuesday.

Pauline Cobb, who is 87 and lives in a Norman nursing home, is shown on a video call with her niece, Jeanie Olinger, of Oklahoma City. (Photo provided)

Olinger’s aunt, Pauline Cobb, tested positive for COVID-19 nearly three weeks ago but has exhibited no symptoms. Olinger, who lives in Oklahoma City, talks to Cobb, 87, on video chats. Olinger said her aunt is chipper and giggly, and doesn’t know that she has the virus or why her niece can’t visit due to Cobb’s undiagnosed disorder.

Olinger’s mom is healthy, but she worries about the risk that allowing visitations would pose to both family members.

“I want to be certain my aunt is safe from exposure and the numbers will have to go down a lot more before I’m comfortable with that,” Olinger said. “And of course, my mom, being in a facility with no cases, worries me. What if it’s opened up too soon and then they get even one case?”

Even after facilities reopen, Olinger said she likely wouldn’t visit if even one positive case was confirmed because her adult son, whom she cares for at home, has a debilitating brain injury and is more vulnerable.

Rachel Shearer, executive director of Adams PARC Post Acute Recovery in Bartlesville, said facilities with significant outbreaks like hers are likely to be more amenable to reopening.

Shearer said she would be more concerned about spreading the virus to visitors because 50 of the home’s residents and staff have tested positive. Many of the residents are temporary, moving in to recover from hospital stays or sudden medical incidents and then going home again, she said.

“One guest – she is 85 – told me she might not live long enough to see a vaccine and she doesn’t want to go months or a year or the rest of her life without seeing her family,” Shearer said. “The risk is worth it for some of them.”

But Mary Brinkley, executive director of Leading Age Oklahoma, which represents nonprofit nursing homes, said facilities with mostly permanent residents and few or no cases could better protect their residents and staff by prohibiting visitors.

“There is no margin of error with these issues and the residents would be greatly compromised,” Brinkley said. “Everything we’ve done to protect this population would be to no avail if we reopen too soon.”

A sign on the door for Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy indicates no visitors are being allowed in the facility, which has suffered a severe outbreak of COVID-19.. Many nursing homes have adopted the same policy. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Sean Voskuhl, director for AARP Oklahoma, said it’s too soon to allow visitors back into the facilities that “have been a petri dish for COVID-19.” But accommodations should be made to increase video calls and other communication with residents to boost accountability, he said.

Families are the best advocate for residents and right now even the long-term care ombudsman staff, the state’s advocates for nursing home residents and their families, aren’t entering facilities.

Typically, complaints filed with the ombudsman’s office, overseen by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, investigates in person. But investigations are being conducted virtually or by phone now to reduce risk to facility residents or staff or to the ombudsman staff.

“We must take extraordinary steps to keep them safe.”

Steven Buck, president of Care Providers Oklahoma

Kiger said accountability is part of his motivation to reopen. 

A statement from the Stitt’s office, attributed to Deputy Secretary of Health Carter Kimble, said in part, “Visitation to these facilities is limited through May 30. The governor and his team will continue to monitor the situation, but the data does not support allowing visitors into nursing homes at this time.”

Stitt’s office did not specifically address questions about a plan to reopen June 1.

Steven Buck, president of Care Providers Oklahoma, which represents the for-profit nursing home industry, said in a statement: “We look forward to the opportunity to expand visitation when it can be done so safely and without risk to residents, staff and the families who are visiting.” He added that because seniors are at heightened risk, “we must take extraordinary steps to keep them safe.”

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.