Maine says it plans to mirror the new federal visitation policies for long-term care facilities that would allow nursing home residents who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to welcome visitors in close contact –  including hugs and holding hands – for the first time in a year.

The guidelines issued Wednesday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) still require visitors to be masked and follow all public health protocols including hand-hygiene before and after visits, and maintaining physical distance from other residents and staff while in a facility. Physical contact won’t be allowed for residents who have not been vaccinated.

The state affirmed its commitment to the new visitation guidelines in a memo obtained by the Portland Press Herald late Thursday night.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, referenced the recommended federal changes during Thursday’s media briefing.

“We recognize the fact that the physical separation of residents of long-term care facilities has huge consequences, be it anxiety or depression or confusion,” she said.

CMS said the new guidelines are the result of significant reductions in COVID-19 infections and transmission resulting from ongoing infection control practices, and high vaccination rates in the nursing home population across the United States.


The new federal guidelines emphasize that maintaining 6 feet of separation is still the safest policy, and outdoor visits are preferable even when residents and visitors have been vaccinated.

The Maine Health Care Association, which represents 92 nursing homes and 105 assisted-living facilities across Maine, hadn’t seen the memo the state released late Thursday, but had welcomed the move by the federal government to relax visitation.

Handling in-person visits to long-term care facilities is a huge issue, as residents and family members, for the most part, have been physically separated for one year, Rick Erb, president and CEO of the organization, said in a telephone interview Thursday night.

“We are pleased with the guidance provided by the federal government. Clearly we are making progress and we are all looking forward to when nursing homes can return to normal,” Erb said. “… It has been an extremely difficult year for residents and their families, but as long as we can continue to make progress we should be able to get back to a normal state of affairs.”

Informal polling of its members by Maine Health Care Association revealed that about 92 percent of all nursing home and assisted-living residents have been vaccinated against the virus, but only 65 percent of nursing home staff have been vaccinated. Erb said his organization has been working with the state on a plan to ramp up vaccinations among staff and newly admitted residents.

“With the new federal guidance about in-person visits, it becomes even more important to get staff and new residents vaccinated,” he said.


The administrator at Pinnacle Health & Rehab in South Portland, formerly the South Portland Nursing Home, took action based on the federal guidance.

“We’ve implemented them already,” Jeff Ketchum said. “We are going in the right direction with this guidance. Family members at least get to have that physical touch. That’s what people want. They haven’t had that for a year.”

Maine Caregivers for Compromise, a group that was created to represent the families whose loved ones live in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities, is organizing a candlelight vigil in South Portland on Saturday evening to remember the lives of long-term care residents who died from COVID-19 during the past year. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the day that visits to long term care facilities ended.

The vigil will be held from 5-6 p.m. at Mill Creek Park in South Portland.

“Bringing light to the darkness of the past year. March 13th marks the one-year anniversary of the lockdowns in our long-term care facilities. Please join us in honoring the strength and resiliency of our elders and their families, and to remember those that we have lost,” wrote Sarah Joakim on the Maine Caregivers for Compromise Facebook page. Joakim said her 91-year-old father lives in a South Portland nursing home.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

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