RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — For seven months during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bob Wilson said he couldn’t see his wife Sue in person.
She’s in a nursing home in Burlington after she had a stroke in 2016.
“My wife is damaged. I’m here to stop the damage. And because I was not allowed in for seven months, I don’t know what we can recover,” he said.
He’s one of several people who came to the General Assembly in Raleigh Thursday to advocate for a bill that would give patients in facilities like nursing homes and hospitals the right to have at least one visitor.
The No Patient Left Alone Act came in response to concerns first raised last year as the pandemic began.
Cathy Dula, a nurse for more than 20 years, said she reached out to Sen. Warren Daniel (R-46th District) after her friend, Scott Starnes, was flown to the hospital following a car crash last spring in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury, she said, after another driver crashed into him going over 100 mph.
She said initially none of his relatives were allowed in to see him. Eventually, his fiancee was allowed inside after Daniel contacted the hospital, she said.
He was eventually transferred to a rehabilitation facility but he had no short-term memory recall, Dula said, so he didn’t understand why his family wasn’t with him.
“He felt alone and abandoned. So, he would become agitated. He would become angry and start pulling things out,” she said.
She said he pulled several tubes out and went into respiratory arrest. When medical professionals could not get him to breathe again, Dula said he went into cardiac arrest, passing away 33 days after his crash. Many of his relatives, including his six sons, did not get to see him before his death.
Dula said she herself was just diagnosed with cancer and worries about her family being able to be with her as she undergoes treatments.
She said, “How do I choose to tell my mother she can’t be there with me? Tell my daughter she can’t be there? Or my husband? Who do I choose?”
The No Patient Left Alone Act is similar to a bill that was filed last year but did not pass amid concerns that it conflicted with federal regulations.
The latest version of the bill creates mandatory visitation rights at facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals that fall under the authority of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Those facilites can require people wear masks and are screened for COVID-19. They can also restrict someone who fails that screening or tests positive for an infectious disease.
Facilities that violate the law could be fined $500 per day by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Of course, the pandemic has been with us for 13 months. You’d think the problem has gone away, but we continue to hear these things every day. I’ve heard them this week,” Daniel said. “It’s really been inconsistently applied across the state. You have some hospitals that are very good about it and some that have been inconsistent.”
He said the bill is meant to be in line with federal regulations, which call for visitation rights for patients. The state and medical facilities have loosened the restrictions since last year. Daniel said the bill is also meant to address future crises.
Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) raised concerns about the bill restricting the ability of Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and state health officials being able to respond to public health emergencies.
“When there is a pandemic, when there is a natural disaster, we have to take measures to make sure that we protect the whole of our society,” she said. “When there is a leader of this state or of a country, they have an obligation to protect the entire public. So, I am not supporting that bill where it takes the authority away.”
She’s also concerned about facilities being able to contain the spread of viruses.
“My own nephew in Chicago was infected by someone who came in the facility, and he has suffered an entire year,” she said.
Cynthia Charles, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents the state’s hospitals, said her organization was still reviewing the most recent changes to the bill and has not taken a position on it.