Washington County state lawmakers are working to deem designated visitors as "essential caregivers" for patients in nursing homes.
Patients in long-term care facilities were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the bill would not throw open nursing home doors to all visitors. It would allow a patient to designate an "essential caregiver" who could visit with, help attend to and advocate for the resident.
"They are absolutely essential to our residents' mental health, which in turn will help their overall health," Julia McGlaughlin-Wiles, executive director of clinical services at Fahrney Keedy Home and Village, said in an interview Friday.
The essential caregiver would have to follow COVID-19 safety measures as stipulated by the facility.
"I feel like we can make this happen because we have the tools that we need now," she said, including personal protective equipment and more knowledge about how to keep the disease from spreading.
She testified in favor of the bill Thursday during a Zoom meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
"It's been almost a year since COVID started and we've been locked down. ...These people are suffering. They need their loved ones," she said in Friday's interview.
Residents are largely alone, she said. Group activities and communal meals are not being held because of concerns about the disease. Residents visit relatives by looking through windows or at digital tablets.
Sen. Paul Corderman, R-Washington, said a local resident came to him with the concern, which led the lawmaker to sponsor the bill. A companion measure, sponsored by Del. Karen Lewis Young, D-Frederick, is heading to a committee hearing in the House.
Corderman and other lawmakers who represent Washington County discussed the measure Thursday night during a virtual meeting of the county's delegation.
"It's a very good bill," said Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington.
Parrott said he plans to introduce a similar measure that would apply only to Washington County in case the statewide effort falters.
In general, the bill would allow a resident of a long-term care facility to designate an essential caregiver to advocate and provide personalized care for the resident. Each facility could set up policies and procedures that the essential caregiver must follow. And the facility could revoke or restrict the caregiver's status if necessary.
The bill also touches on some details, such as having schedules that take into account the number of people in the building, and prohibiting an essential caregiver from visiting if the patient or resident is quarantined.
In an interview Friday, Corderman said one of the concerns is having the bill's provisions mesh appropriately with other laws about states of emergency.
"We understand why (the facilities) were closed" during the early stages of the pandemic, Corderman said.
McGlaughlin-Wiles said she acknowledges concerns some might have about spreading the disease. During the worst of an outbreak at Fahrney Keedy, COVID-19 claimed the lives of 11 residents.
At the same time, she said, others also are suffering from depression, weight loss and related issues because of the isolation they're experiencing.
She believes the bill is needed even as the nation looks to roll out vaccines to the general public in the next several months.
"I say, why wait? How can we take any more time from them?" she said.
McGlaughlin-Wiles and Corderman also believe the thrust of the bill could be useful after COVID-19, because other emergencies are bound to happen.
"Nobody expected it in the past," Corderman said, "and we don't know what's going to happen in the future."