ALBANY — Visitors can return to New York’s nursing homes and congregate care facilities, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, announcing amended guidelines Thursday that removed the requirement that a facility must be free of new coronavirus infection for two weeks to resume visitation.

The state Health Department released updated guidance Thursday to resume visitation in New York’s 613 nursing homes and adult-care facilities for all residents, with limited exceptions for unvaccinated residents, visitation in areas with high COVID-19 positivity and lower vaccination rates, residents with a confirmed coronavirus infection or those under quarantine.

All facilities are required to abide by the state’s required infection-control practices including social-distancing, mask-wearing and use of personal protective equipment.

“From the very beginning we’ve used science and data to find the appropriate balance between protecting our most vulnerable populations in nursing homes and the importance of allowing safe contact with their loved ones,” Cuomo said in a statement Thursday. “We now have three effective vaccines that are leading to significant decreases in long-term-care COVID cases and a robust staff testing system to limit community spread from entering a facility. Now is an appropriate time to take the next step and safely reconnect this community with their families.”

Indoor visitation will be limited in facilities in counties if COVID-19 positivity rate surges above 10% and fewer than 70% of the residents in the facility are fully vaccinated against the disease.

Visitors may be subject to screenings or temperature checks before entering a facility. Visitors who do not adhere to the mandated COVID infection prevention protocols will not be permitted to visit or will be asked to leave, according to the Health Department’s newest visitation rules.

Compassionate and end-of-life care visits have always been, and continue to be, permitted.

“Compassionate care visits, and visits required under federal disability rights law, should be allowed at all times, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status, the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate, or an outbreak,” according to the department’s guidelines.

Thursday’s update aligns New York’s congregate facility guidelines with the most recent U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and marks the state’s fourth change to its nursing home visitation in the last year.

The new visitation guidelines were issued on the one-year anniversary of the controversial March 25, 2020, Health Department memo that allowed COVID-positive residents to return to their nursing homes or congregate facilities to recover. Activists and officials have sparred over conflicting data and reports since late last spring that the directive led to a large number of the state’s 15,000-plus virus nursing home deaths.

Cuomo’s office released the updated guidelines late Thursday afternoon after families, activists and lawmakers held rallies and memorials statewide throughout the day to commemorate the anniversary and honor the lives lost.

The state first suspended visitation in congregate care centers and nursing homes March 12, 2020, at the onset of the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring. New York City and the state became the virus’s global epicenter at the start of the pandemic.

The state expanded visitation because New York’s coronavirus positivity rate has consecutively declined and vaccination rates have continued to increase since January.

The state’s COVID-19 infection rate peaked at 7.94% on Jan. 4 after the anticipated surge following Thanksgiving and accompanying holiday season, which continued through New Year’s Day. The state’s positivity rate dipped to 3.01% Thursday, reflecting an 80% decrease over the last 12 weeks.

“We understand the emotional toll that this community has experienced by being separated from their loved ones during a particularly challenging year,” state Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said. “We’re confident that these facilities can continue strong infection control practices that will allow for the safe visitation they have dearly missed.”

About 76% of state nursing home and adult-care residents have received the coronavirus vaccine, according to the state’s online COVID vaccine tracker at Roughly 54% of congregate facility staff were vaccinated as of press time Thursday.

At least 70% of a community population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity against a disease.

More than 8.2 million doses have been administered in the state to date, providing at least one vaccine dose to about 27.5% of New Yorkers, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

The state did not set a COVID infection threshold to reduce visitation or reinstate a ban to visitors in congregate facilities, Health Department officials said Thursday.

Department representatives referred questions to Zucker’s statement.

On Sept. 15, the Health Department started to allow people who had proof of a negative coronavirus test within the last seven days to visit nursing homes that were COVID-free for at least 14 days. The department provided free rapid tests to visitors in facilities had no new infection for two weeks.

The Health Department strongly recommended all facilities offer testing for visitors as COVID-19 continues to be present in all communities, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Visitation guidelines were updated a third time Feb. 23 removing the negative test requirement if a nursing home did not have a new virus infection for two weeks if the county where the facility is located had a positivity rate of 5% or fewer.

Visitation was encouraged later this winter in congregate facilities in the state’s 62 counties with infection rates below 5%, health department officials said Thursday.

Nursing home staff have been mandated to test negative for the virus twice weekly since May 10.

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