State officials revoke guidance that would've ended 'window visits' at nursing homes

MADISON -- The Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care quickly reversed guidance issued Monday, April 13 that so-called "window visits" would be prohibited at the state's nursing homes and long-term care facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was pulled Tuesday after Governor Tony Evers' administration intervened.

The visits started as COVID-19 swept the nation and nursing homes and assisted living facilities barred visitors entering the buildings to see their loved ones, who are some of the most vulnerable to the virus. In response, family and friends who wanted to visit would do so through the windows of the facilities.

Candace and Mark Weber

The "window visits" are how Mark Weber has been able to see his mother, Candace, 69, a resident of BRIA of Trinity Village near 76th Street and Dean Road in Milwaukee.

"I just, I needed to see her, so I stood outside her window and videotaped it, just so I have something, in case," he said.

That window closed on Monday when the Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care issued new guidance, saying: "This now includes not making 'window visits' at any nursing home or assisted living community." The board said people were, "Kissing through a screen" or, "Hugging through an open window."

Leah Vukmir

Within 24 hours, the board received 31 emails, and 43 phone calls, and soon, there was a change of heart.

"It hits a cord," said Leah Vukmir, former state senator. "It hits a cord with so many of us."

The issue has impacted Vukmir personally when it comes to visiting her elderly mother.

"There was no basis for this, and it seemed, really, an overreach and needless, and creating more harm and distress for people who are already isolated by being in a nursing home," said Vukmir.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tony Evers, Britt Cudaback, said the plan did not reflect the administration's position on the issue. Cudaback noted that no agency can issue guidelines that conflict with the "Safer at Home" order, therefore it was not valid. The board has since issued revised guidance, removing the clause about "window visits."

Statement from Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care:

"The State of Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care is retracting the Memo dated April 13, 2020. Please see the revised Memo dated April 14, 2020. Our Memo providing recommendations regarding “window visits” in Long Term Care communities was an attempt to respond to numerous accounts we have received of individuals visiting long-term care residents outside of the windows, yet having contact such as kissing through a screen, hugging through an open window and not maintaining social distancing. Our Memo was not intended to imply that we believe the virus could spread through a closed glass window, however, was in response to these accounts. This was also in attempt to respond to concerns for residents with dementia who are confused when visitors they do not know may be looking inside their windows or visiting at nighttime. We did not intend to recommend prohibiting allowed essential activities such as waiving to a resident through a closed window or providing care essential to someone’s health and safety. We apologize for any confusion. Our recommendation was never meant to be an order, mandate, restriction or ban of any sort.

The Board on Aging and Long Term Care consists of seven Board members appointed by the Governor as well as an Executive Director/State Ombudsman and agency staff. We are not part of the Department of Health Services."

The order and its reversal caused some confusion. Officials at Three Pillars in Waukesha County stopped the window visits Monday, but said they would be allowed again after the reversal.

Statement from Three Pillars:

 "Yesterday, we let families know that we were stopping window visits because of the memo we received, however, because of the news today, we are immediately reinstating them. We appreciate how meaningful they are to families and to residents and look forward to resuming these important visits while following the guidelines we have in place, including no open windows and good social distancing.

We always take our guidance from DHS because they are our licensing agency. The Board on Aging acts as the advocates for residents in licensed communities."

The updated rules also remind seniors they should not leave the homes unless they need to pick up essential needs, like groceries or medication. Anyone over 65 or with a chronic health condition should ask someone else to pick up the supplies. In addition to possibly getting sick themselves, the board warned that anyone who leaves risks bringing coronavirus back with them, which could get others sick too.

The board did offer some suggestions to visit family members. For in-person visits, by contacting the nursing home or assisted living facility. A pre-screening will be required, plus visitors will likely be escorted through the building to make sure they go directly to their family member’s room.

Alternative ways to visit include: