FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4)– For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic seniors who live in group communities, like assisted living, will be able to physically embrace their loved ones. The CDC and CMS approved fully-vaccinated seniors in group housing to hug their loved ones, according to a new set of guidelines released Wednesday afternoon.

“Today is day 363 since our residents have been closed,” said Yvonne Myers, Health System Director for Columbine Health Systems, one of Northern Colorado’s biggest senior care living providers. “We are super excited today. To think about hugging your loved one is huge.”

Seniors have been the most susceptible to contracting COVID-19, with a greater likelihood that they could die from the pandemic. Because of that the federal and state governments have been stringent on family and friend interactions. While recent guidelines allowed the seniors to talk with loved ones through windows, or from six feet away, Wednesday’s announcement was the first time providers were told they could let their residents physically touch their loved ones.

“You can hug your loved one!” Myers told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “If you’re fully vaccinated and your loved one can come in and give you a hug, that will be fun and great to see.”

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Other changes included the ability to continue letting residents visit with family and friends even if there is an outbreak within the facility. Outbreaks are defined as any two or more individuals testing positive. New rules now allow visitation from outside guests so long as the outbreak is isolated to one wing of a facility, and other residents and staff continue to test negative.

“That is huge. Usually when you hit outbreak, which is two people, visits are done,” Myers said.

Unfortunately, even though the federal health guidelines approved the new rules, the State of Colorado had not as of Wednesday night. However, Myers said the state released a notice that they planned to follow suit and approve the same guidelines. That could be done as soon as Thursday morning.

The new guidelines would also require facilities to allow compassion visits with no questions asked. Compassion visits come when a resident in the facility stops eating or is nearing end of life. Prior to the announcement, senior care facilities were forced to limit contact, only allowing limited family members to stay at a distance from their loved ones during the difficult time.

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Last week the CDC approved fully vaccinated seniors to hug and spend time with loved ones who have not been vaccinated. However, those standards were not applicable to those who live in group housing. Myers said that was difficult to explain to residents and their families.

(credit: CBS)

Many saw the announcement and thought they were allowed to return to life as normal. With 99% resident vaccination completed, and 80% staff, Myers said it was sometimes hard for the Columbine community to understand why they were held to higher standards than the public.

“It is safer for me to go in to one of our buildings than it is to go one to a large box store,” Myers said, citing the company’s vaccination and sanitation rates. “(Residents have said,) ‘We are fully vaccinated. Open the doors. Open the dining halls. Let’s go back to bingo.’ And, it is not there yet. We may be last to get fully open because our population is so vulnerable.”

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Myers said the new guidelines, set to be approved by the state soon, are small-yet-major steps toward normalcy. As the health system prioritizes both physical and emotional health of their residents, Myers said simply having more frequent and meaningful visitation could go a long way.

“Each little move forward is just win. We are getting there,” Myers said.

Dillon Thomas