SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As COVID-19 cases surge amid the omicron variant, a new California health order imposes strict rules on nursing home visitors, including proof of vaccination, a booster shot, and a negative test before entering any facility.
The California Department of Public Health order, which adds to the list of nursing home visitor requirements, went into effect Friday and continues through February 7, however, it could be extended.
Anyone who wants to visit their loved ones at a nursing home or assisted living facility will need to track down one of those tough-to-find COVID tests or visit a PCR testing location first.
"It just increasingly looks like visitors are being targeted as unwelcome for reasons other than infection control." attorney Tony Chicotel with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform said.
All visitors now need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in addition to being fully vaccinated and boosted. If it's a rapid antigen test, it needs to be done within 24 hours of the visit and if it's a PCR test, it needs to be within two days of the visit, according to the order.
Before this, visitors only needed to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Meanwhile, workers at those assisted living facilities are required to be vaccinated but can get exemptions and only have to be tested for the coronavirus twice a week.
"Just make it equally applicable to everybody and not just the visitors," Chicotel said. "Otherwise you're undermining your argument that it's about safety."
Director and State Public Health Officer Tomás J. Aragón signed the order and said the reason for the additional requirement is that since Thanksgiving, the statewide seven-day average case rate has increased by 410% and the number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients has increased by 63%.
It was unclear how many of those hospitalizations were due to the omicron variant or from prior delta variant infections.
"The recent emergence of the omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts, including testing, to continue protecting against COVID-19," he said.
The order comes at a time when COVID-19 test kits and appointments for in-person PCR tests are difficult to find.
However, that's not the case in other counties.
"I wish we had the capacity to do it," said Jason Belden, Director of Emergency Preparedness with the California Association of Health Facilities. "Every one of these facilities, they're like, 'I have to be the bad guy now because I have to tell people, look, I can't let you in unless you test, and I don't have a test. And I don't know where to send you.'"
Additionally, nursing homes are left to police the new state policy. But it's unclear how nursing homes will validate test results.
Ozzie Rohn, whose 94-year-old father, Ebrahim Mirhashami is battling cancer and Parkinson's Disease, and living at the Jewish home in San Francisco, has been unable to visit him because of recent positive cases at the facility and difficulty getting a test.
"My dad still doesn't understand that I cannot just drop by and visit him," she said. "Why isn't the government providing more test kits?"
The CDPH issued a statement that said it is expanding antigen test availability and hours of operation at state-sponsored testing sites.
"The state has put millions of at-home tests directly into the hands of local jurisdictions," the statement said in part. "These additional testing supplies will continue to flow into the state in the coming days and weeks, as the state and our federal partners continue to facilitate the delivery of at-home tests.
But that's cold comfort for Rohn, who wants to visit her loved one and fearful time is running out.
"I don't think he's going to be with us for long," she said. "I'm just fearful that the last couple years of his life is going to be pretty miserable."