ALBANY — The state relaxed its restrictions on visits to nursing home residents Tuesday after strong pressure from advocates for families and patients.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said his agency is allowing limited visitation at facilities that have been without COVID-19 infections for at least 14 days. The move eases the previous requirement that a facility have no coronavirus infections for at least 28 days.

The new standard takes effect Thursday. Based on the latest state data, an estimated 500 of New York's 613 nursing homes will be eligible to have visitors at the facilities.

"This is a good move for these families that want to safely see their loved ones and provide some companionship and the human feeling that they need after months of isolation and loneliness," said Assemblyman D. Billy Jones Jr., D-Plattsburgh.

Jones is one of several lawmakers who has urged the Cuomo administration to ease the restrictions imposed on visits to nursing homes. The facilities have been the venue for the state's worst concentrated outbreak of coronavirus infections.

State data indicates more than 6,400 nursing home patients in New York have died as a result of COVID-19 since March. But some experts suggest the death toll could be far higher when nursing home patient deaths that took place at hospitals are included in the total.

Public health experts have warned since the beginning of the pandemic that congregate living facilities posed one of the greatest challenges in stopping the transmission of the virus.

Zucker said New York has been taking a "smart and cautious approach to allowing visitations."

Mark Buddle, a physical education teacher from Schenectady whose 88-year-old father is a dementia patient at a nursing home near his home, said the revised rules on visitations are still too restrictive.

"Families still can't fill in the gaps in care and we can't go in there and wash their hands, brush their teeth, trim their nails, give them a haircut, give them a shave," Buddle told CNHI.

"If the staff can go wherever they want at night and if it's safe for them to come in the next day with just a mask on and deliver hands-on care, why am I any less safe?" he added.

The latest guidance requires visitors to show they have had a negative result on a COVID-19 test within seven days. The guidance also requires facilities to deny admission to any person who shows symptoms of being infected or fails to pass screening questions.

The guidance also limits the number of visitors per patient to two at a time and mandates visitors wear face masks and practice social distancing during the visits. Visitors under the age of 18 are barred from admission to nursing homes.

Zucker, in a statement, said the health department will be "guided by science and concern for residents’ welfare and will monitor nursing homes that host visitors, to make sure this action does not lead to an increase in cases.”

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers have taken issue with a March 25 directive from Zucker, requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-19 positive patients, suggesting that move could have endangered residents of the facilities who had not been infected but were at risk due to their physical frailties.

In June, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, citing a report approved by his administration, suggested nursing home outbreaks were caused by staffers who brought the infection into the facilities. The governor has rejected calls for an independent investigation of the toll the virus has taken at the facilities.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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