BISMARCK — A North Dakota proposal looking to remedy the tight nursing home visitation policies of the COVID-19 pandemic was signed into law by Gov. Doug Burgum after the legislative session closed out last week.

Senate Bill 2145 allows residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities to name an "essential caregiver" who could come and go from their facility during states of emergency to open up an "in-person physical, spiritual, or emotional support" line during times of restriction like the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My hope is that we never, ever have to do this again," said Fargo Republican Sen. Kristin Roers, the lead sponsor on the bill. While pandemic restrictions on North Dakota's nursing homes have mostly lapsed, she hoped her legislation would allow long-term care residents a consistent channel for support if the state ever goes through a similar emergency again.

As in other parts of the country, North Dakota's nursing homes have been epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 897 North Dakotans have died in nursing homes since last March, accounting for more than 60% of the state's pandemic death toll.

State and federal-level restrictions aimed at stopping the virus from entering nursing homes prevented many North Dakotans from seeing elderly loved ones for months on end.

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Though the virus was able to infiltrate many North Dakota nursing homes in spite of visitation restrictions, Roers, a nurse, said she believes her bill outlines appropriate safeguards to prevent viral spread through caregivers.

The bill states long-term care facilities can create safety requirements for designated caregivers, including travel restrictions, protective equipment and virus testing. It also calls on the Department of Human Services to review and update its essential caregiver protocols every thirty days during times of restricted visitation.

North Dakota's active COVID-19 cases fell dramatically over the last five months, and a successful vaccine rollout in nursing homes likely contributed to a sharp drop in the state's virus deaths. More than 90% of North Dakota nursing home residents received at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-March.

Burgum ended North Dakota’s state of emergency on Friday, April 30, and state-level visitation restrictions on nursing homes lapsed.

In an unrelated, late-stage addition to Roers' bill, lawmakers tacked on a provision responding to recent national political debates over "unaccompanied undocumented children" at the U.S.-Mexico border.

President Joe Biden's administration faced pressure to respond to large numbers of unaccompanied children trying to cross the border, and Roers said the addition to her bill came at the request of the Department of Human Services to clarify that existing North Dakota laws would not allow for the creation of a shelter for migrant children in the state.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.