CMS Announces New COVID-19 Visitation Guidelines for Nursing Homes
- CMS is committed to continuing to take critical steps to ensure America’s healthcare facilities are prepared to respond to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency (PHE).
- Visitation Guidance: CMS is issuing new guidance for visitation in nursing homes during the COVID-19 PHE.
- Visitation is allowed for all residents at all times.
- Updated guidance for face coverings and masks during visits.
- Removed vaccination status from the guidance.
Nursing homes have been severely impacted by COVID-19, with outbreaks causing high rates of infection, morbidity, and mortality. The vulnerable nature of the nursing home population combined with the inherent risks of congregate living in a healthcare setting have required aggressive efforts to limit COVID-19 exposure and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within nursing homes.
In March 2020, CMS issued memorandum QSO 20-14-NH providing guidance to facilities on restricting visitation of all visitors and non-essential healthcare personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation.
While CMS guidance has focused on protecting nursing home residents from COVID-19, we recognize that physical separation from family and other loved ones has taken a physical and emotional toll on residents and their loved ones. Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and expressions of distress. Residents living with cognitive impairment or other disabilities may find visitor restrictions and other ongoing changes related to COVID-19 confusing or upsetting. CMS understands that nursing home residents derive value from the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they receive through visitation from family and friends. In light of this, CMS is revising the guidance regarding visitation in nursing homes during the COVID-19 PHE. The information contained in this memorandum supersedes and replaces previously issued guidance and recommendations regarding visitation.
Since the release of QSO memorandum 20-39-NH on September 17, 2020, COVID-19 vaccines have received full approval and Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Millions of Vaccinations have since been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and these vaccines have been shown to help prevent symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection (i.e., COVID-19). In addition, CMS requires nursing homes to educate residents and staff on the risks and benefits of the vaccines, offer to administer the vaccine, and report resident and staff vaccination data to CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network. CMS now posts this information on the CMS COVID-19 Nursing Home Data website along with other COVID-19 data, such as the weekly number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Therefore, CMS, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is updating its visitation guidance accordingly, but emphasizing the importance of maintaining infection prevention practices.
We note that the reason for visitation restrictions during the COVID-19 PHE were to mitigate the opportunity for visitors to introduce COVID-19 into the nursing home. Per 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4), a resident has the right to receive visitors of his or her choosing at the time of his or her choosing, and in a manner that does not impose on the rights of another resident, such as a clinical or safety restriction (see 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4)(v)). In other words, while all residents have a right to visitation, fully open and unrestricted visitation posed a clinical health and safety risk to other residents during this PHE, and therefore, it was reasonable to place limits on visitation. However, current nursing home COVID-19 data shows approximately 87% of residents and 83% of staff are fully vaccinated as of February 2022.
On November 4, 2021, CMS issued a regulation requiring that all nursing home staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a requirement for participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. This requirement also applies to nearly all Medicare and Medicaid-certified providers and suppliers. CMS will continue to monitor vaccination and infection rates, including the effects of COVID-19 variants on nursing home residents, which have recently caused the number of cases to slightly increase. However, at this time, continued restrictions on this vital resident’s right are no longer necessary.
We acknowledge that there may still be concerns associated with visitation, however, adherence to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention mitigates these concerns. Furthermore, we remind stakeholders that, per 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(2), the resident has the right to make choices about aspects of his or her life in the facility that are significant to the resident. We further note that residents may deny or withdraw consent for a visit at any time, per 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4)(ii) and (iii). Therefore, if a visitor, resident, or their representative is aware of the risks associated with visitation, and the visit occurs in a manner that does not place other residents at risk (e.g., in the resident’s room), the resident must be allowed to receive visitors as he/she chooses.
Visitation can be conducted through different means based on a facility’s structure and residents’ needs, such as in resident rooms, dedicated visitation spaces, and outdoors. Regardless of how visits are conducted, certain core principles and best practices reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission:
Core Principles of COVID-19 Infection Prevention
- Facilities should provide guidance (e.g., posted signs at entrances) about recommended actions for visitors who have a positive viral test for COVID-19, symptoms of COVID-19, or have had close contact with someone with COVID-19. Visitors with confirmed COVID-19 infection or compatible symptoms should defer non-urgent in-person visitation until they meet CDC criteria for healthcare settings to end isolation. For visitors who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 infection, it is safest to defer non-urgent in-person visitation until 10 days after their close contact if they meet criteria described in CDC healthcare guidance (e.g., cannot wear source control).
- Hand hygiene (use of alcohol-based hand rub is preferred)
- Face covering or mask (covering mouth and nose) in accordance with CDC guidance
- Instructional signage throughout the facility and proper visitor education on COVID- 19 signs and symptoms, infection control precautions, other applicable facility practices (e.g., use of face covering or mask, specified entries, exits and routes to designated areas, hand hygiene)
- Cleaning and disinfecting high-frequency touched surfaces in the facility often, and designated visitation areas after each visit
- Appropriate staff use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Effective cohorting of residents (e.g., separate areas dedicated to COVID-19 care)
- Resident and staff testing conducted as required at 42 CFR § 483.80(h) (see QSO- 20- 38-NH)
These core principles are consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for nursing homes, and should be adhered to at all times. Additionally, visitation should be person-centered, consider the residents’ physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being, and support their quality of life. The risk of transmission can be further reduced through the use of physical barriers (e.g., clear Plexiglass dividers, curtains). Also, nursing homes should enable visits to be conducted with an adequate degree of privacy. Visitors who are unable to adhere to the core principles of infection prevention should not be permitted to visit or should be asked to leave. By following a person-centered approach and adhering to these core principles, visitation can occur safely based on the below guidance.
Outdoor visits generally pose a lower risk of transmission due to increased space and airflow. For outdoor visits, facilities should create accessible and safe outdoor spaces for visitation, such as in courtyards, patios, or parking lots, including the use of tents, if available. However, weather considerations (e.g., inclement weather, excessively hot or cold temperatures, poor air quality) or an individual resident’s health status (e.g., medical condition(s), COVID-19 status, quarantine status) may hinder outdoor visits. When conducting outdoor visitation, all appropriate infection control and prevention practices should be followed.
Facilities must allow indoor visitation at all times and for all residents as permitted under the regulations. While previously acceptable during the PHE, facilities can no longer limit the frequency and length of visits for residents, the number of visitors, or require advance scheduling of visits.
Although there is no limit on the number of visitors that a resident can have at one time, visits should be conducted in a manner that adheres to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention and does not increase risk to other residents. During peak times of visitation and large gatherings (e.g., parties, events) facilities should encourage physical distancing. Facilities may contact their local health authorities for guidance or direction on how to structure their visitation to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Face Coverings and masks during visits
If the nursing home’s county COVID-19 community transmission is high, everyone in a healthcare setting should wear face coverings or masks.
If the nursing home’s county COVID-19 community transmission is not high, the safest practice is for residents and visitors to wear face coverings or masks, however, the facility could choose not to require visitors wear face coverings or masks while in the facility, except during an outbreak. The facility’s policies regarding face coverings and masks should be based on recommendations from the CDC, state and local health departments, and individual facility circumstances.
Regardless of the community transmission level, residents and their visitors when alone in the resident’s room or in a designated visitation area, may choose not to wear face coverings or masks and may choose to have close contact (including touch). Residents (or their representative) and their visitors should be advised of the risks of physical contact prior to the visit. If a roommate is present during the visit, it is safest for the visitor to wear a face covering or mask.
Additional information on levels of community transmission is available on the CDC’s COVID-19 Integrated County View webpage.
NOTE: CDC states that Community Transmission is the metric currently recommended to guide select practices in healthcare settings to allow for earlier intervention, before there is strain on the healthcare system, including its workforce, and better protect the vulnerable individuals seeking care in these settings. The Community Transmission metric is different than the COVID-19 Community Level metric used for non-healthcare settings.
Nursing homes should use the Community Transmission Level metric not the Community Level metric.
While not recommended, residents who are on transmission-based precautions (TBP) or quarantine can still receive visitors. In these cases, visits should occur in the resident’s room and the resident should wear a well-fitting facemask (if tolerated). Before visiting residents, who are on TBP or quarantine, visitors should be made aware of the potential risk of visiting and precautions necessary in order to visit the resident. Visitors should adhere to the core principles of infection prevention. Facilities may offer well-fitting facemasks or other appropriate PPE, if available; however, facilities are not required to provide PPE for visitors.
Indoor Visitation during an Outbreak Investigation
An outbreak investigation is initiated when a single new case of COVID-19 occurs among residents or staff to determine if others have been exposed. To swiftly detect cases, we remind facilities to adhere to CMS regulations and guidance for COVID-19 testing, including routine staff testing, testing of individuals with symptoms, and outbreak testing.
When a new case of COVID-19 among residents or staff is identified, a facility should immediately (but not earlier than 24 hours after the exposure, if known) begin outbreak testing in accordance with CMS QSO 20-38-NH REVISED and CDC guidelines.
While it is safer for visitors not to enter the facility during an outbreak investigation, visitors must still be allowed in the facility. Visitors should be made aware of the potential risk of visiting during an outbreak investigation and adhere to the core principles of infection prevention. If residents or their representative would like to have a visit during an outbreak investigation, they should wear face coverings or masks during visits and visits should ideally occur in the resident’s room. While an outbreak investigation is occurring, facilities should limit visitor movement in the facility. For example, visitors should not walk around different halls of the facility. Rather, they should go directly to the resident’s room or designated visitation area. Also, visitors should physically distance themselves from other residents and staff, when possible. Facilities may contact their local health authorities for guidance or direction on how to structure their visitation to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission during an outbreak investigation.
Visitor Testing and Vaccination
While not required, we encourage facilities in counties with high levels of community transmission to offer testing to visitors, if feasible. If facilities do not offer testing, they should encourage visitors to be tested on their own before coming to the facility (e.g., within 2–3 days).
CMS strongly encourages all visitors to become vaccinated and facilities should educate and also encourage visitors to become vaccinated. Visitor testing and vaccination can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and facilities may ask about a visitors’ vaccination status, however, visitors are not required to be tested or vaccinated (or show proof of such) as a condition of visitation. If the visitor declines to disclose their vaccination status, the visitor should wear a face covering or mask at all times. This also applies to representatives of the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman and protection and advocacy systems, as described below.
Compassionate Care Visits
Compassionate care visits are allowed at all times. Previously during the PHE, there were some scenarios where residents should only have compassionate care visits. However, visitation is now allowed at all times for all residents, in accordance with CMS regulations. Therefore, we believe there are few scenarios when visitation should be limited only to compassionate care visits. In the event a scenario arises that would limit visitation for a resident (e.g., a resident is severely immunocompromised and the number of visitors the resident is exposed to needs to be kept to a minimum), compassionate care visits would still be allowed at all times. CMS expects these scenarios to be rare events.
Facilities shall not restrict visitation without a reasonable clinical or safety cause, consistent with 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4)(v). In previous nursing home visitation guidance during the PHE, CMS outlined some scenarios related to COVID-19 that would constitute a clinical or safety reason for limited visitation. However, there are no longer scenarios related to COVID-19 where visitation should be limited, except for certain situations when the visit is limited to being conducted in the resident’s room or the rare event that visitation is limited to compassionate care. Therefore, a nursing home must facilitate in-person visitation consistent with the applicable CMS regulations, which can be done by applying the guidance stated above. Failure to facilitate visitation, per 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4), which states “The resident has a right to receive visitors of his or her choosing at the time of his or her choosing, subject to the resident’s right to deny visitation when applicable, and in a manner that does not impose on the rights of another resident,” would constitute a potential violation and the facility would be subject to citation and enforcement actions.
As stated above, we acknowledge that there are still risks associated with visitation and COVID-19. However, the risks are reduced by adhering to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention. Furthermore, we remind facilities and all stakeholders that, per 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(2), residents have the right to make choices about aspects of his or her life in the facility that are significant to the resident. Visitors, residents, or their representative should be made aware of the potential risk of visiting and necessary precautions related to COVID-19 in order to visit the resident. However, if a visitor, resident, or their representative is aware of the risks associated with visitation, and the visit occurs in a manner that does not place other residents at risk (e.g., in the resident’s room), the resident must be allowed to receive visitors as he/she chooses.
Access to the Long-Term Care Ombudsman
As stated in previous CMS guidance QSO-20-28-NH (revised), regulations at 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4)(i)(C) require that a Medicare and Medicaid-certified nursing home provide representatives of the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman with immediate access to any resident. If an ombudsman is planning to visit a resident who is in TBP or quarantine in a nursing home in a county where the level of community transmission is high in the past 7 days, the resident and ombudsman should be made aware of the potential risk of visiting, and the visit should take place in the resident’s room. We note that representatives of the Office of the Ombudsman should adhere to the core principles of COVID- 19 infection prevention as described above. If the resident or the Ombudsman program requests alternative communication in lieu of an in-person visit, facilities must, at a minimum, facilitate alternative resident communication with the Ombudsman program, such as by phone or through the use of other technology. Nursing homes are also required under 42 CFR § 483.10(h)(3)(ii) to allow the Ombudsman to examine the resident’s medical, social, and administrative records as otherwise authorized by State law.
Federal Disability Rights Laws and Protection & Advocacy (P&A) Programs
42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4)(i)(E) and (F) requires the facility to allow immediate access to a resident by any representative of the protection and advocacy systems, as designated by the state, and as established under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 (DD Act), and of the agency responsible for the protection and advocacy system for individuals with a mental disorder (established under the Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 2000). P&A programs authorized under the DD Act protect the rights of individuals with developmental and other disabilities and are authorized to “investigate incidents of abuse and neglect of individuals with developmental disabilities if the incidents are reported to the system or if there is probable cause to believe the incidents occurred.” 42 U.S.C. § 15043(a)(2)(B). Under its federal authorities, representatives of P&A programs are permitted access to all facility residents, which includes “the opportunity to meet and communicate privately with such individuals regularly, both formally and informally, by telephone, mail and in person.” 42 CFR § 51.42(c); 45 CFR § 1326.27.
If the P&A is planning to visit a resident who is in TBP or quarantine in a county where the level of community transmission is high in the past 7 days, the resident and P&A representative should be made aware of the potential risk of visiting and the visit should take place in the resident’s room.
Additionally, each facility must comply with federal disability rights laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (ADA).
For example, if communicating with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, it is recommended to use a clear mask or mask with a clear panel. Face coverings should not be placed on anyone who has trouble breathing or is unable to wear a mask due to a disability, or anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
In addition, if a resident requires assistance to ensure effective communication (e.g., a qualified interpreter or someone to facilitate communication) and the assistance is not available by onsite staff or effective communication cannot be provided without such entry (e.g., video remote interpreting), the facility must allow the individual entry into the nursing home to interpret or facilitate, with some exceptions. This would not preclude nursing homes from imposing legitimate safety measures that are necessary for safe operations, such as requiring such individuals to adhere to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention. Any questions about or issues related to enforcement or oversight of the non-CMS requirements and citations referenced above under this section subject heading should be referred to the HHS Office for Civil Rights (Toll-free: 800-368-1019) (TDD toll-free: 800-537-7697), the Administration for Community Living (202-401-4634), or other appropriate oversight agency.
Entry of Healthcare Workers and Other Providers of Services
All healthcare workers must be permitted to come into the facility as long as they are not subject to a work exclusion or showing signs or symptoms of COVID-19. In addition to health care workers, personnel educating and assisting in resident transitions to the community should be permitted entry consistent with this guidance. We note that EMS personnel do not need to be screened, so they can attend to an emergency without delay. We remind facilities that all staff, including individuals providing services under arrangement as well as volunteers, should adhere to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention and must comply with COVID-19 testing requirements.
Communal Activities, Dining and Resident Outings
While adhering to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention, communal activities and dining may occur. Book clubs, crafts, movies, exercise, and bingo are all activities that can be facilitated with alterations to adhere to the guidelines for preventing transmission. The safest approach is for everyone, particularly those at high risk for severe illness, to wear a face covering or mask while in communal areas of the facility. For more information, see the Implement Source Control section of the CDC guidance “Interim Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Healthcare Personnel During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic.”
Facilities must permit residents to leave the facility as they choose. Should a resident choose to leave, the facility should remind the resident and any individual accompanying the resident to follow all recommended infection prevention practices such as wearing a face covering or mask, especially for those at high risk for severe illness and when community transmission is high, performing hand hygiene and encouraging those around them to do the same.
Upon the resident’s return, nursing homes should screen residents upon return for signs or symptoms of COVID-19:
- If the resident or family member reports possible close contact to an individual with COVID-19 while outside of the nursing home, see the CDC’s guidance for residents who have had close contact for next steps regarding testing and quarantine.
- If the resident develops signs or symptoms of COVID-19 after the outing, see the CDC’s guidance for residents with symptoms of COVID-19.
In most circumstances, quarantine is not recommended for residents who leave the facility for less than 24 hours (e.g., for medical appointments, community outings with family or friends) except in certain situations, described in the CDC’s empiric transmission-based precautions guidance.
Residents who leave the facility for 24 hours or longer should generally be managed as a new admission, as recommended by the CDC in the Managing admissions and residents who leave the facility section.
State survey agencies and CMS are ultimately responsible for ensuring surveyors are compliant with the applicable expectations. Therefore, LTC facilities are not permitted to restrict access to surveyors based on vaccination status, nor ask a surveyor for proof of his or her vaccination status as a condition of entry. If facilities have questions about the process a state is using to ensure surveyors can enter a facility safely, those questions should be addressed to the State Survey Agency. Surveyors should not enter a facility if they have a positive viral test for COVID-19, signs or symptoms of COVID-19, or currently meet the criteria for quarantine. Surveyors should also adhere to the core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention and adhere to any COVID-19 infection prevention requirements set by federal and state agencies (including Executive Orders).
- For concerns related to resident communication with and access to persons and services inside and outside the facility, surveyors should investigate for non-compliance at 42 CFR § 483.10(b), F550.
- For concerns related to a facility limiting visitors, surveyors should investigate for non- compliance at 42 CFR § 483.10(f)(4), F563.
- For concerns related to ombudsman access to the resident and the resident’s medical record, surveyors should investigate for non-compliance at 42 CFR §§ 483.10(f)(4)(i)(C), F562 and 483.10(h)(3)(ii), F583.
- For concerns related to lack of adherence to infection control practices, surveyors should investigate for non-compliance at 42 CFR § 483.80(a), F880.
Contact: Questions related to this memorandum may be submitted to: DNH_TriageTeam@cms.hhs.gov.
Effective Date: Immediately. This policy should be communicated with all survey and certification staff, their managers, and the State/CMS Locations within 30 days of this memorandum.
Click here to view the Nursing Home Visitation – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).