COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After nearly six months of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, people can visit relatives and friends in South Carolina nursing homes and residential care facilities, but there will be no hugs and kisses and they will have to meet outside.
Gov. Henry McMaster announced new guidelines for visitation Tuesday, which require guests to give full contact information and pass a temperature check and require no COVID-19 cases in staff or residents in the past two weeks.
"As expected, the months of separation and isolation have caused loneliness, depression, stress, anxiety among the residents. I worry about them, like you do, every day." said McMaster, adding he has read dozens of letters and had hundreds of conversations with heartbroken families.
The move comes on the same day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he will also lift that state’s ban on visiting nursing homes.
In South Carolina, visitation was halted almost immediately after the first COVID-19 cases showed up in the state in mid-March.
Allowing visitors to return has been a goal of health officials and McMaster. At nursing homes across the state, people can be seen outside windows of loved ones.
But for much of the summer, COVID-19 cases spiked in the state and in June, the governor had to delay allowing visitors.
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases had been dropping for the past five weeks, but that decline has leveled off and began rising again, topping 900 for the first time in two weeks.
COVID-19 deaths never did decline significantly in South Carolina with the seven-day average failing to drop below 26 deaths a day since July 17.
Overall, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reports more than 118,000 people infected with the virus and 2,626 deaths.
The Memorial Day weekend in May marked the start of the spike, and with Labor Day weekend upcoming and students at all levels returning to school, experts worry another spike in COVID-19 cases could happen if people are not vigilant about masks, social distancing, hand-washing and other safety measures.
One current hot spot is the University of South Carolina, which started its fall semester last month with in-person classes. The school has reported more than 1,000 coronavirus cases and filled up 60% of its quarantine space for students. The school is sending rapid tests to places on campus where wastewater testing shows high levels of the virus.
The school also suspended six sororities or fraternities, as well as 15 students, for violating COVID-19 safety rules.
McMaster wanted elementary, middle and high schools to offer a five-day a week option for schools, although he does not have the power to order that and most districts decided to split students into groups that come into school two days a week and learn virtually the remaining days. All schools will start back by Sept. 8.
Nursing home visitation is another milestone. The rules announced Tuesday require visitors and residents to stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart while in special outdoor visitation areas. Facilities can also use three-sided Plexiglas booths to let people visit closer together.
Masks have to be worn at all times from the moment visitors arrive at the home. There is a limit to two visitors, who can only stay 15 minutes unless they can provide a negative COVID-19 test in the past five days or a positive COVID-19 antibody test in the past 30 days. Pets can visit too if they are in kennels or leashed.
Visitors cannot come inside the nursing home and residents can't pass through any area where COVID-19 patients are to get to the visitation area, according to the new rules.
Facilities have to protect residents and visitors from the weather and can choose to not allow visitors if they wish.
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