By RICK SOBEY | The Boston Herald

March 11, 2021 

Hugs between nursing home residents and their family members now have the green light, as the coronavirus vaccine rollout has helped dramatically lower virus rates inside these hard-hit facilities.

The feds this week relaxed visitation guidelines for nursing homes amid the vaccine rollout that has prioritized getting shots into the arms of nursing home residents and staff.

“… We acknowledge the toll that separation and isolation has taken,” reads the guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We also acknowledge that there is no substitute for physical contact, such as the warm embrace between a resident and their loved one.

“Therefore, if the resident is fully vaccinated, they can choose to have close contact (including touch) with their visitor while wearing a well-fitting face mask and performing hand-hygiene before and after,” the feds wrote. “Regardless, visitors should physically distance from other residents and staff in the facility.”

This latest guidance comes as more than 3 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered within nursing homes, thanks in part to the CDC’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program.

In Massachusetts, the shots started getting administering in long-term care facilities on Dec. 28. Since then, the virus’ case rate and death rate have dropped in these facilities.

The head of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association said that the updated federal guidance for nursing homes “largely mirrors existing state DPH guidance that already allowed, under appropriate infection control measures, for residents to visit with and hold hands or hug their loved ones.”

“We are pleased and grateful that state rules, already for some time, have allowed for the types of visits the federal government is now allowing across the country, which is a further indication of the safety of the Commonwealth’s nursing facilities and the progress made to vaccinate the vast majority of nursing home residents,” Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said in a statement.

As the vax started getting administered at Bay State long-term care facilities on Dec. 28, nearly 60% of coronavirus deaths in the state had been tied to these sites. During the 50 days since that vax launch day, 33% of Massachusetts virus deaths were connected to long-term care facilities.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services continues to recommend facilities, residents, and families adhere to the core principles of COVID-19 infection control, including maintaining physical distancing and conducting visits outdoors whenever possible. This continues to be the safest way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly if either party has not been fully vaccinated.

“CMS recognizes the psychological, emotional and physical toll that prolonged isolation and separation from family have taken on nursing home residents, and their families,” Lee Fleisher of CMS said in a statement. “That is why, now that millions of vaccines have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and the number of COVID cases in nursing homes has dropped significantly, CMS is updating its visitation guidance to bring more families together safely.”