(TRENTON) – To address widespread isolation and loneliness in long-term care facilities, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, legislation to require the New Jersey Department of Health (DOH) to implement and oversee an “Isolation Prevention Project” in long-term care centers was signed into law today by Governor Phil Murphy. The bill previously passed the Assembly in September 79-0, and the Senate in August 39-0.
“For months at the start of the pandemic, family and friends were not allowed to visit their loved ones in long-term care facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chair of the Aging and Senior Services Committee and prime sponsor of the new law. “Though this precaution was intended to protect the physical health of residents, for many the sustained social isolation took a toll on their mental health. Eight months into this crisis, we’ve learned social distancing doesn’t have to mean isolation or loneliness. Whether it be a natural disaster or a public health crisis, we must ensure that residents in these facilities can stay connected to their families and loved ones remotely when in-person visits are not feasible.”
Under the new law (formerly bill A-4007), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle and Assembly Democrats Angela McKnight and Carol Murphy, long-term care facilities in New Jersey are required to adopt and implement a written isolation prevention plan and have appropriate technology, staff and other capabilities needed to prevent residents from becoming isolated.
The plans are required to allow residents to have in-person contact with other residents as well as family, friends and other support systems during public emergencies, consistent with the circumstances of the emergency and the facility’s response plan. If residents must be physically isolated due to the circumstances of the emergency or the facility’s response plan, they will be allowed to communicate with others electronically, including via videoconferencing and social media.
A resident or their family members may request staff to develop an individualized visitation plan for the resident, which would identify the resident’s needs and preferences, address and establish a visitation schedule if appropriate, and describe the location, modalities and responsibilities of staff, visitors and residents during visitation.
“Even before COVID-19, many residents in long-term care felt socially isolated and lonely,” said McKnight (D-Hudson). “The pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Most of us at one point or another have leaned on family and friends for support in these uncertain times. We must make sure those in long-term care – many of them elderly or disabled – are able to stay in touch with their support systems.”
“Mental health and physical health are equally important. During COVID-19 and beyond, the mental health of long-term care residents must be a priority,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “Now more than ever, we must keep residents connected to their families, both for the sake of their mental health and to ensure families are able to advocate for their loved ones.”
Under the law, residents who have disabilities that impede their ability to communicate, such as those who are deaf or blind or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or developmental disabilities, will be given assistive and supportive technologies to facilitate face-to-face, verbal or auditory contact with others.
Long-term care facilities will budget for the purchase, maintenance and replacement of equipment needed to help residents communicate electronically during public emergencies. Facilities will employ a sufficient number of qualified staff to train and help residents use these technologies.
Additionally, DOH is required to establish a grant program to help facilities purchase electronic devices and technological equipment.
Finally, under the law, isolation prevention plans will be assessed during facility inspections by DOH. Facilities with plans which are not up to standard will be cited accordingly.