Families of Northeast Ohio nursing home residents yearn for guidance on vaccines and visitation

Published: Jan. 26, 2021 at 8:58 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - COVID-19 vaccines are giving families with loved ones in nursing homes hope they’ll finally be able to visit them inside of facilities regularly again.

But, 19 Investigates found vaccines may not be the quick fix they think it will be.

The governor opened up indoor visitation at nursing homes under certain conditions last fall, leaving it up to the facility.

But many families still haven’t seen their loved ones and they’re not sure if the vaccine will change this.

Cheryl Leissa of Lake County has only been able to check on her mom through a window for almost a year now, where she lives at a local assisted living facility.

It’s a huge change for both of them.

“We’re best friends. We travel together, we talk for hours,” Leissa said.

She’s 82 and suffers from dementia.

“My mom has good days and bad days. On her bad days, she says she feels like she’s in prison, which she is. And it’s not living and she wishes she was dead,” she said.

That’s the kind of pain possibly thousands of Ohioans are living with as they try to stay positive for their loved ones in nursing homes who feel isolated during the pandemic.

The vaccine rollout brought them new hope.

“After the second vaccine, I would really hope that these long term facilities would reopen and let us in. Because—the vaccine is as good as it gets,” Leissa said.

Some facilities are letting families inside, but it’s a case-by-case basis.

There are no federal, state or local guidelines in place establishing how many residents, staff or even family members need to get vaccinated before indoor visits can return across the board.

“I don’t want to give up, but it’s very frustrating. Because we get a little bit of hope, and then it’s squashed down,” Leissa said.

Paula Mueller, founder of Elderly Advocates, is waiting for answers too.

“Does every person have to be vaccinated? Do just the residents have to be vaccinated? Do the family member have to be vaccinated? It’s really so unfair to ask so much of these families without giving them the information by all rights they should have,” she said.

She wants to see clear policies outlined for families.

“You have all of these facilities having different policies and procedures the same exact situations, and there’s no reason for that. If it’s an exact same situation then they should all be following the same thing,” Mueller said.

In the meantime, she’s requesting help from state lawmakers.

As for Leissa, she’ll keep showing up outside her mom’s window, but she worries she’s running out of time.

“For the rest of my mom’s life, whatever she has left, I want it to be some quality of life, I’d like to be able to spend it with her. Because I really miss her. And I don’t know what else to do,” she said.

19 News reached out to the Ohio Department of Aging. Here’s the statement they sent us:

Because we don’t yet know if people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 illness are still carriers of the virus, it’s important to continue prevention measures and to protect those who can’t get the vaccine. A combination of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, and washing your hands often are all needed.

We know the COVID-19 public health emergency has been very difficult on residents of long-term care facilities. Not only are residents at particular risk of illness and death from the coronavirus itself, they may also be experiencing loneliness and isolation due to the restrictions on visitation in the facilities. The Sixth Amended Director’s Order to Limit Access to Ohio’s Nursing Homes and Similar Facilities, with Exceptions outlines opportunities for residents and their families and loved ones to visit safely when possible. Even if facilities are restricting visits due to outbreaks or widespread community spread, compassionate care visits are still possible. Examples of compassionate care situations include, but are not limited to:

A resident who was living with their family before recently being admitted to a home, is struggling with the change in environment and lack of physical family support.

A resident who is grieving after a friend of family member recently passed away.

A resident who needs cueing and encouragement with eating or drinking, previously provided by family or caregiver(s), is experiencing weight loss or dehydration.

A resident, who used to talk and interact with others, is experiencing emotional distress, seldom speaking, or crying more frequently (when the resident had rarely cried in the past).

Long-Term Care Ombudsmen stand ready to assist residents and their loved ones navigate the visitation opportunities in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The order requires homes to work with residents, families, caregivers, resident representatives, clinicians, and the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman program to identify the need, length, and frequency for compassionate care visits.

State Ombudsman Email:; State Ombudsman Hotline: 1-800-282-1206; Find your regional long-term care ombudsman program.

-Ohio Department of Aging

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