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'By Their Side': Group Wants Yearlong COVID-19 Nursing Home Lockdown Lifted

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Frankie Graziano
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Connecticut Public
Jennifer Larkin of Greenwich holds up a photo collage of her mother, Nola Modine Larkin. Jennifer is fighting to get COVID-19 visitation restrictions lifted in honor of her mother, who died in February.

On Monday, at least 100 yellow signs popped up on a lawn freshly emerged from snow, just off Route 1 in Greenwich. The phrase “Isolation Kills, Too” was written on them.

“Today’s the official start -- the official start to say ‘enough,’” Liz Stern told a small crowd gathered on the lawn.

“We know we need to be safe -- but safety needs to be redefined.”

Stern, who’s from Stonington, and a group of other Connecticut residents are protesting across the state to mark the one-year anniversary of a national COVID-19 lockdown of long-term care facilities. Monday’s demonstration was the first part of a traveling sign campaign to promote awareness around nursing home visitation.

The home attached to the lawn belongs to Jennifer Larkin. She lost her mother, Nola, 96, just last month.

“A bright, funny, computer-literate senior, mom lived independently with me for 12 years before a stroke disabled her right arm and leg,” Larkin said.

A second stroke took away Nola’s ability to talk. And when guidelines from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services restricted visitation in long-term care facilities, Jennifer had to rely on Zoom to see her mother. The communication barrier loomed large.

She was getting used to virtual visitation and not questioning the new normal. Then she found out from a newspaper obituary that her mother’s roommate had been dead for a whole month.

“This is when I first realized that I had no idea what my mom was going through inside.”

The red flags continued, according to Larkin. She found out that her mom lost 25 pounds and was taking anti-depressants, likely due to the isolation from her family and her boyfriend, George, who lived on a different floor in the nursing home.

By the time Larkin did see her mother in person, she didn’t look the same.

“I noticed that her glasses were missing and she lost a tooth.”

Larkin believes her mother would’ve made it to 100 if it weren’t for the pandemic.

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Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public
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Connecticut Public
Liz Stern speaks at a rally in Greenwich on Monday. She wants a lockdown based on federal guidance to nursing homes to be lifted as soon as possible.

Stern also lost her mother recently. Annette Caprio Onofrio died in November. Since then, Stern has worked to peel back restrictions. One request she has is that every resident be granted at least one “essential caregiver.” That’s a family member who gets to come and go as if they work in the facility, as Stern puts it.

“I follow the staff numbers in infection. I know what’s happening, and yet, the private group of 12 women I work with, not one of us has had the infection, and yet our loved ones have died without us by their side,” Stern said.

Stern’s and Larkin’s mothers didn’t die from COVID-19. Both women say their mothers died from isolation -- because of restrictions imposed to keep the virus out of long-term care facilities, where a good portion of coronavirus deaths have occurred.

In their fight to open up visitation, the women have the backing of Mairead Painter, Connecticut’s long-term care ombudsman.

“We don’t want the doors to just fly open -- we don’t want residents to be at risk, [and] we want to do it in a meaningful way. But ... people, through testing, through vaccinations, should be able to have increased access.”

CMS didn’t return a request for comment.

The federal agency did revise guidelines last September to allow indoor visitation, but it came with rules. If local COVID-19 metrics didn’t support visitation, families were again locked out.

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