ST. LOUIS — Arnetta Kelly-Lane threw her head back as a gentle breeze blew outside her nursing home. Her three children, sitting 6 feet apart from her across the sidewalk, smiled.
Wrinkles formed around her eyes before she lowered her face mask for a second to show her children her grin.
“Feels good,” said Kelly-Lane, 75, one of a handful of residents visiting loved ones on the lawn outside Beauvais Manor last week after months apart.
The nursing home closed its doors to anyone but essential staff in early March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Up until then, at least one relative visited Kelly-Lane each day, sons Kevin and Johnnie Lane told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They used to take her to Galilee Baptist, her longtime church, every Sunday. Then the church, too, closed to visitors.
That was hard on Kelly-Lane, who by then was confined to her room, Johnnie Lane said.
“She was very surprised when I told her we couldn’t go to service Sunday,” he said. “That’s never happened in her lifetime.”
When the home began allowing limited outdoor visits Tuesdays and Thursdays in mid-May, the Lanes signed up for every day they could. Beauvais Manor won’t allow hugs yet, but that’s OK as long as it keeps her safe, Kevin Lane said.
“We’re just happy to see her, and for her to get outside and breathe the fresh air,” he said.
Beauvais Manor was ahead of the curve: the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services last week approved such outdoor visits for nursing homes that have not recorded a new COVID-19 infection within the last four weeks.
The visits are sorely needed for nursing home residents, whose mental and physical health was negatively affected when they no longer could visit with family and friends, play bingo or eat with other residents, or receive special care from visiting nurses and therapists.
“We were worried about senior loneliness before this virus even started, and then they were locked in their rooms with nobody but their roommates and their caretakers,” said Marjorie Moore, executive director of Creve Coeur-based VOYCE, a nonprofit ombudsman for seniors in area care homes. “These kinds of visits give them a chance to see their families and get just a little taste of normalcy.”
At least 332 Missouri residential-care facilities — which includes not just nursing homes but any residential facility providing long-term care — have met the requirements to allow outdoor visits, said Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for DHSS.
Moore said many nursing homes in the St. Louis region — those that may meet the criteria — have yet to start holding outdoor meetings until they can figure out the details. Some homes lack wide-open spaces to host visits, for example.
St. Louis County also issued an order last week allowing outdoor visits.
At Beauvais Manor, families met their loved ones recently at a handful of designated spots under the shade of trees, across the street from Tower Grove Park. Visitors were not allowed within 6 feet of the residents, who were required to wear masks. Nurses helped residents outside, in some cases in wheelchairs or wheeled beds, and monitored visits to ensure families practiced social distancing.
Barbara Anderson-McCoy, 71, and her sister, Veronica Anderson, 54, sat under the shade and talked about their family and friends. The family has booked frequent visits over recent weeks.
“That first Tuesday, it was like ‘Wow, I’m glad to see you,’” Anderson-McCoy said. “I was so concerned about her needs being met. It’s a blessing that she was alright.”
But the visit still didn’t feel right, said Lucressie Campbell, Anderson’s sister-in-law.
“We’re usually up on her pinchin’ her and huggin her and lovin’ her,” said Campbell, 80.
Beauvais Manor has held at least 70 outdoor visits since they began mid-May, administrator Jameka Garrett-Hughes said.
“It’s been a hit,” Garrett-Hughes said. The residents “had less fear, and they had something to look forward to,” she said.
Beauvais Manor has reported one case of COVID-19 — an employee who tested positive in May, according to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, or CMS. The employee tested positive for the virus while on vacation and hadn’t been in the building for days, Garrett-Hughes said.
Beauvais Manor and other homes have said they take every precaution recommended by national and local health experts, including screening employees for symptoms at the door and requiring masks and protective equipment.
“I like to count us as pretty lucky because I know COVID is real and people that think they are being safest have contracted COVID,” Garrett-Hughes said.
Nursing homes nationwide have been particularly hard hit by the virus, which is dangerous to older adults and people with preexisting medical conditions. CMS estimates that COVID-19 has killed 305 residents and three employees at about 80 federally licensed nursing homes across the state and has infected more than 1,245 other residents. Dozens of other types of residential care facilities have also been affected, according to DHSS.
VOYCE anticipates that every home in Missouri will at some point confirm at least one case of COVID-19, Moore said, but the important thing is to have detection measures and protections in place, she said.
“If you can stop it in its tracks with good infection control, testing and screening employees,” Moore said, “that’s a sign that you’re doing something right.”