It's time to let loved ones back into nursing homes, says the CEO of Loch Lomond Villa in Saint John.
But with the stakes so high, "balancing that risk is extremely important for all of us," Cindy Donovan said Monday.
"We need to be mindful that every day, we cannot ever let our guard down until there is a vaccine."
Donovan said New Brunswickers need only look to a neighbouring province to see how devastating the consequences can be when COVID-19 gets into nursing homes.
The trick is balancing safety protocols with the need for residents to reconnect after being "isolated for six months from their families," she said.
And Donovan said we have to "capitalize on it as quickly as we can" under the current environment since we don't know how long it might last.
More than three weeks ago, the government lifted the ban on physical contact with "designated support persons," known as DSPs, and off-site visits, but not all facilities have implemented the changes.
That's led to some confusion, said Jodi Hall, the executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes.
While all facilities are working toward that goal, Hall said, some are struggling to make the changes. Some just don't have the staff or resources to do so safely.
She said it's important to remember that this isn't a return to the way things were before the pandemic began — this is a way to allow one or two loved ones in, while keeping COVID-19 out.
Workers and families both have to be trained on how to keep those visits safe.
All of that takes more personnel and more money, said Hall.
"The budget and the staffing are the really critical issues," she said. "Some homes have been able to sort through those items, and some homes are still trying to sort through those items."
Hall said her organization has asked the provincial government about additional resources and the group is hopeful that nursing homes will qualify for a $19 million federal fund designed to help businesses restart safely.
While all nursing homes are facing increased costs because of COVID-19, Hall said it's difficult to come up with an exact figure.
"As you can imagine, some of these calculations are quite complex from the last six months," she said.
"And then, there's those retroactive costs. But then there's also the anticipated costs going forward, living under these pandemic guidelines. So I'm hoping to also achieve a per diem. And so those calculations are still under development."
'A huge cost'
Donovan said none of the COVID-19 protocols have come without a cost — and allowing DSPs in to visit and help care for their loved one won't either.
"But there's no question that it's time for family to be able to come in," she said.
"For us, it's about balancing risk along with residents' social needs, physical, mental needs that they are really needing at this time."
Although the government announced that physical contact and off-site visits would be allowed, it left the exact details up to individual facilities. Some have capped DSPs at one, others are allowing two.
At Loch Lomond Villa, each resident can have two DSPs, although only one can visit at a time. Each visit is capped at three hours and all visits have to be approved in advance.
Donovan said everyone who wants to be a DSP has to submit an application and then take a 90-minute training course that covers the safety protocols.
Many of the rules are the same as before — except contact is now allowed and the designated person can visit the resident's living quarters. A DSP still has to maintain proper hand hygiene and wear a mask during the entirety of the visit.
So far, three families have been approved and 75 other applications are pending, said Donovan.
While DSPs may eventually help lighten the workload on nursing home workers, the program is creating more work for already-tired staff, said Donovan.
"Six months in, I can tell you from my perspective and my staff, we are tired. There is no question that we're calling it COVID fatigue.
"And I see it every day when I come to work, that our staff, who have been absolutely wonderful through this process, is tired. And I would say we don't have any end date in sight. And that makes it that much worse for everybody."
At the moment, Donovan said, the Villa hasn't implemented off-site visits — nor is there a date set to do so. She said it's just too difficult to ensure safety measures are adhered to when residents are off-site.