Visitor restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic: An ethical case study

Nurs Ethics. 2021 Nov-Dec;28(7-8):1111-1123. doi: 10.1177/09697330211005078. Epub 2021 May 13.


To prevent and reduce the transmission of the coronavirus to vulnerable populations, the World Health Organization recommended the restriction of visitors to nursing homes. It was recognised that such restrictions could have profound impact on residents and their families. Nonetheless, these measures were strictly imposed over a prolonged period in many countries; impeding families from remaining involved in their relatives' care and diluting the meaningful connections for residents with society. It is timely to explore the impact of public health measures on people living in nursing homes from an ethical perspective. In order to foreground the ethical dimensions of the implications of visitor restrictions in nursing homes, we compiled an ethical case that reflects some recent experiences of nursing homes residents and their families, in the Irish Republic. We describe a series of events encountered by a woman and her family during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 and we deploy an ethical decision-making tool to guide and structure our analysis. Our case analysis draws attention to ethical principles that are relevant to explicating the ethical duties and obligations that arise in relation to the interests, well-being, and safety of residents and their families, as well as nursing home staff and the wider community during a pandemic. These include the right of autonomy, trust, minimising harm, and proportionality. We conclude that a number of different strategies should be adopted by nursing homes and relevant regulatory bodies. This includes honest, regular communication between the nursing home staff, the resident and their family. Central to communications is the resident's wishes, their current clinical status and the all-important wider public health obligations. National strategies include mass vaccination, the timely provision of guidance documents and interventions from regulatory bodies that are patient-centred, adaptable, and cost effective.

Keywords: COVID 19; Care of the older person; ethical tool; ethics; long term care; pandemic; public health restrictions; theory/philosophical perspectives.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Nursing Homes
  • Nursing Staff*
  • Pandemics
  • SARS-CoV-2