COVID restrictions continue for cooped up NJ veterans with curtailed family visits
BERNARDS — Even as New Jersey has been loosening pandemic-era mandates enacted two years ago, a federally run veterans nursing home in New Jersey continues to restrict visitors and residents.
Every two weeks, Susan Mondie drives 90 minutes to Lyons Community Living Center to visit her husband. She's allowed a visit that lasts just 30 minutes.
Donald Mondie, 85, served as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War. He is disabled and sees a recreation therapist several times each week, according to his wife.
Under Stage 1 restrictions, Donald Mondie spends most of his time in his room. To even go outside on the back patio, veterans are required to have an escort.
Recently, the veterans at Lyons were unable to go out to the patio for several days because of a mother goose. The large bird had laid its eggs on the patio, making it "unpredictable," according to emails reviewed by New Jersey 101.5.
With warmer weather, the back patio also serves as a visitation area. But when the weather is under 40 degrees, or dangerous geese are present, the residents must see their visitors indoors.
"My husband is suffering serious mental decline and I believe it is mainly due to the isolation he has had to endure," Mondie said, adding that she sees no end in sight to these restrictions.
Veterans' homes hit hard
The Lyons Community Living Center is one of over one hundred Veterans Affairs nursing homes throughout the country. And like other long-term care facilities — such as the veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus, which lost 119 residents during the height of the pandemic — the Lyons residents have been hit hard.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, the VA New Jersey Healthcare System has been enforcing federal guidelines based on its Moving Forward Plan. The current guidelines went into effect in November 2021.
One such guideline at Lyons CLC is that each veteran can only see visitors for one day every two weeks. Visits can only last 30 minutes at most.
Other restrictions include supervised visits and no physical contact with loved ones. Gifts cannot be passed directly to residents and a lack of volunteers means no visitations on weekends.
How visitation is determined at VA homes
VA New Jersey Healthcare System spokeswoman Christine Farrell told New Jersey 101.5 that the Veterans Health Administration has chosen its guidelines with care.
"The residents of Long Term Care facilities, such as those in our CLCs, have endured tremendous difficulties throughout the pandemic," Farrell said. "Although the majority of CLC residents are now vaccinated, they are still at greatest risk for an adverse outcome. Out of an abundance of caution, VHA is proceeding judiciously on easing these requirements."
Under the guidelines, visitations and resident passes are largely dictated by two constantly changing factors. Depending on the Somerset County positivity rate and the most recent COVID-19 case within the facility, Lyons could be in one of three stages.
If there has been a positive COVID-19 test among residents or staff within the last 10 days, Lyons would be in Stage 1. In this stage, residents can only see one visitor at a time and they cannot leave on day passes.
After 10 days without a new case, the facility moves into either stage 2 or 3 depending on how rapidly the virus is spreading throughout the county. These stages are relatively relaxed but do not make opportunities for in-person visitations more frequent.
Farrell noted a regional uptick in cases over the past few weeks is being felt at Lyons.
As of April 25, 29 residents and more than 300 staff at the facility have tested positive, according to state figures. Given the new cases among staff and residents, the community living center remains at Stage 1.
"With patient safety being of paramount importance, VA New Jersey is committed to keeping our CLC residents and their families connected," Farrell said. "The number of face-to-face outdoor visits is steadily increasing, and virtual visitations also continue to grow."