Ontario loosens COVID-19 restrictions on vaccinated residents in long-term care

Ontario loosens COVID-19 restrictions on vaccinated residents in long-term care
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Hugs, communal dining and indoor social events are back in style at Ontario nursing homes — with precautions — as some COVID-19 restrictions are being eased where vaccination levels are high enough.

The changes, including outdoor exercise and trips for the pharmacy for all residents regardless of vaccination status, took effect Tuesday after long months of public health measures in long-term care, and complaints from families and residents that not enough has been done to improve living conditions.

“They’re starting to resume some normal life,” said caregiver advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos, who urged the government to clear the way for more approved people to visit nursing home residents than the two that are currently allowed per resident.

“They haven’t changed the number of essential family caregivers, which is something we’ve been asking for.”

Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton — under fire for two reports last week that pointed to a slow government response to the deadly impact of COVID-19 in nursing homes — said “the high vaccination uptake in long-term-care homes means we can take further steps towards bringing social interactions back.”

While 95 per cent of nursing-home residents are fully immunized, 85 per cent of staff have had at least one dose and it’s not known how many of them — or essential caregivers for residents — have had two doses.

The new freedoms are strongest for homes where 85 per cent of residents and 70 per cent of staff are fully inoculated, allowing for the suspension of physical distancing in most cases, with extra precautions such as physical distancing in rooms at homes where thresholds are lower.

For example, fully immunized staff and essential caregivers — usually the adult children of residents — are allowed to accompany residents to help at mealtimes, where no buffet service or sharing of utensils are permitted.

In the bureaucratic language of the directive referring to hugs or holding hands, “homes should not restrict physical touch” between residents and caregivers who are fully vaccinated.

While hugs were welcomed, some questioned continuing restrictions such as a prohibition on dogs and other pets being allowed to visit.

“One of the highlights for my mom is always seeing my dog,” said one Toronto man, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity. “Again, all we are told is, ‘Ministry rules.’ I don’t even know where to begin to explain our family’s frustration with the lack of clarity and direction.”

Communal dining must be suspended if a home is in an outbreak declared by the local public health department. As of Tuesday, 50 of Ontario’s 626 nursing homes were in outbreak, although 27 of those homes had no cases among residents.
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