TORONTO — Ontario long-term care residents can start taking social trips and see more caregivers as of next week following more than a month of strict rules aimed at controlling the spread of the Omicron variant.
The province will begin easing visitor restrictions in the homes on Monday – a week after public health rules started to roll back across the rest of the province.
"With public health and health care indicators now improving, we are cautiously lifting these measures so our residents can spend time with more friends and family that play such an important role in their health and wellbeing," Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra said in a written statement Friday.
The restrictions, including a pause on access to long-term care facilities for general visitors, took effect in late December as a response to a COVID-19 surge caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
As of Monday, the number of designated caregivers per resident will increase from two to four, though only two can visit at a time.
Residents who have had at least three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be allowed to resume social day trips.
General visits from individuals five years and older who've had at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be allowed to resume on Feb. 21.
From that day onwards, residents will be allowed to have three visitors at a time, and all residents can go on social day trips regardless of their vaccination status.
On the same day, residents who've had at least three vaccine doses can go on overnight absences and day programs, while entertainer visits and personal care services at homes can resume. Social activities in homes will be limited to 10 people.
On March 14, kids under five can visit again, residents can have four visitors at a time, and all residents regardless of vaccination status can go on overnight absences.
The announcement comes after the province started lifting public health rules for businesses and general social gatherings on Monday. Those rules took effect after the restrictions in long-term care home were imposed, and were in place for a shorter period of time.
Long-term care advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos, who studies family caregiving at Ontario Tech University, said changes to visitor rules are "long overdue."
"It can't happen soon enough, but we'll take February 7," she said.
But the visitor policies, she said, are "half the battle" when it comes to combatting the isolation long-term care residents are living with.
Many remain largely confined to their rooms due to outbreak protocols, and communal activities will still be paused until the middle of this month. Stamatopoulos said those conditions should change now that the majority of residents have three COVID-19 vaccine doses and some have started receiving fourth shots.
"It seems overly punitive and frankly draconian to keep this up," she said. "The irony of the most vaccinated population being treated like prisoners still is not lost on all of us."
Long-term care residents have been subject strict isolation policies off-and-on for the last two years of the pandemic.
A commission that looked at how the pandemic hit the sector in the earlier waves reported last spring that the mental health impacts of restrictions on residents were similar to those experienced by prisoners in solitary confinement.
NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh said she was relieved families will be able to reunited with loved ones in long-term care. She also called for the government to do more to address ongoing staffing challenges worsened by the Omicron wave.
"With far fewer hands to help, we know seniors are not getting the care they need and deserve, and far too many remain isolated in their rooms," Singh wrote in a statement.
Calandra commented this week on a "positive" trend in staff COVID-19 cases after weeks of record-high infection levels among long-term care workers. The Omicron wave has strained the sector's workforce and led to spiking outbreaks, cases and deaths.
The province recently pushed back a deadline for workers to get mandatory third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, from the end of January to mid-March, because of disruption from Omicron outbreaks.
As of Thursday, the province says 84 per cent of eligible long-term care workers had received third COVID-19 shots and 91 per cent of eligible residents had third jabs. Fourth doses are also being offered to residents.
Outbreak numbers in the sector have begun to drop but still remain high. As of Friday, 50 per cent of long-term care homes in Ontario were reporting outbreaks and 14 more resident deaths were reported from the virus.
Overall, Ontario reported 58 more COVID-19 deaths on Friday.
There were 2,634 people hospitalized with virus and 517 people in intensive care, down from 2,797 hospitalized and 541 in ICU with COVID-19 on Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press