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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

'Morale Is So High': As Seniors Get Vaccinated, Nursing Homes Welcome Back Visitors

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It's been a year since the start of the pandemic and, at long last, some nursing home residents can see their loved ones in person again. That, coupled with the reopening of social spaces like dining halls and wellness facilities, has made a world of difference to residents.

"I've been popping around and talking to some of our residents, and the morale is so high around here right now," said Megan Ulrich, vice president of marketing and business development at Maple Knoll Village. "We have people who hadn't been able to spend time with their neighbors in quite a few months that are now able to get back to a little bit of normal. And I think we're starting to see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel."

Ulrich says visitation and common areas reopened to residents March 1. Now, they can eat in the cafeteria, work out, take bus rides, and gather in groups of 10 or less - a far cry from just a few months ago when many of them had to spend the holidays alone.

"Obviously, we've all dealt with some depression over the past year with being confined, not being able to see your loved ones, not being able to do normal activities," she said. "So this is a step in the right direction for them. For those and assisted living. This is the first time that we've been able to do indoor visitations in about a year." 

The restrictions were needed to keep people safe, though. In Ohio, more than half of COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes.But with more people getting vaccinated, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced at the end of February that nursing home visitations could continue as long as some requirements were met.

It's required that there be no new onset of cases in the last 14 days; facilities can't be conducting outbreak testing; and COVID-19 rates in counties have to be at less than 10%.

At Maple Knoll, of 1,300 residents, 800 live in independent living situations and could have had visitors. But many of them, she says, declined because they were fearful of getting the virus. About 400 residents are in assisted or skilled nursing care. The latter still can't have visitors except in the case of compassionate care.

Ulrich says 98.5% of their residents and about 70% of staff have been vaccinated.

At Otterbein Lebanon SeniorLife Community, 94% of residents have been vaccinated and about 70-80% of the staff.

Gary Horning, vice president of marketing and communications at Otterbein, said there have been pushes to encourage people to sign up for the vaccine.

"One of the things that we did at all of our vaccination clinics is that we had a series of eight-and-a-half by 11 cards made up that people could write in with a sharpie why they chose to be vaccinated," he said. "The normal things (were) to bring hugs back into my life; to be safe around the people that I love; to be safe around the people with whom I work; and so on and so forth. But one lady just told it like it was. She just said, 'I chose to be vaccinated because I'm not stupid.' "

But despite high vaccination rates, there are still strict safety procedures in place to prevent COVID-19 infections, he says.

Like Maple Knoll Village, Horning said people are adhering to social distancing and mask regulations. But the facility also requires visitors to have a recent negative COVID-19 test or get a rapid test onsite.

"I'll be honest with you, this has been a savior for us," he said. "Because while we've been open for visitation at most of our locations for the last three or four weeks, we've already found about seven different prospective visitors that wanted to come in and visit mom or dad and, ultimately, tested positive." 

It's important to catch those kinds of slips, he says, because it saves lives and also keeps facilities in compliance with the state regulations. In Clermont and Warren counties, for instance, six Otterbein nursing homes are still closed to visitors.

Editor's note: On Wednesday, March 10, the same day this article was published, health officials updated nursing home visitation recommendations. Changes include: allowing vaccinated residents to spend time together without social distancing and masks, allowing compassionate care visits in all cases, and modified visitation restrictions for unvaccinated residents. Read the latest changes about Ohio nursing home visitation rules here.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.