Changes in COVID-19 protocols for long-term care get mixed reviews

A woman has her temperature taken as she arrives at a long-term care home in Ontario in January 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A woman has her temperature taken as she arrives at a long-term care home in Ontario in January 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Long-term care homes in the province are now responsible for making their own decisions about COVID-19 protocols within their facilities, after the Nova Scotia government lifted its COVID-19 Health Protection Act order on Tuesday.

Some companies took immediate action, removing the masking requirement for staff and visitors.

"Several of our members actually after the news yesterday immediately took the masks off," said Michele Lowe, executive director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association. "If you were to survey the majority of residents and staff in nursing homes, they would tell you they all want to see the masks gone."

Lowe said the news was a "welcome reprieve" from the past three years.

"Many of our residents have never seen the full faces of caregivers for the last three years and some of our staff have never seen the full faces of their coworkers."


She added that since some nursing homes don't have cooling systems, wearing masks became uncomfortable during the summer for staff who were working eight- or 12-hour shifts.

But not everyone is comfortable with the changes, Lowe said.

"There certainly are those who are a little anxious about it and masks will certainly be available to staff and/or families or visitors who want to be able to continue to wear them."

She said when there are outbreaks of COVID-19, nursing homes will follow the protocols that were in place before Tuesday.

The changes announced by the province include the removal a mandatory vaccination protocol for high-risk settings, which required workers in health care and long-term care to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The rule caused some employees to leave their workplace.

Lowe said facilities will now have the opportunity to contact those employees to see if they want to return.

Shannex and Northwood

Shannex, one of the largest long-term care operators in the province, immediately removed the masking requirement for staff and visitors as a result of the province's announcement Tuesday.

Spokesperson Shannon Peterson said in a statement that staff will wear masks when isolation precautions are in place, or when providing direct care to residents for prolonged periods of time.

"It has been a long time since residents have been able to see our team members' smiles, read lips and receive familiar social cues from facial expressions, which is so important," the statement said.

"We do realize there may be those who are uncomfortable with the removal of continuous masking and we'll continue to provide masks to anyone who wishes to wear them. As well, we may decide to adjust our approach and temporarily reinstate masking on a home-by-home basis during periods of heightened risk."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Shannex will also now review its mandatory vaccination protocol.

Northwood, another long-term care provider, said Wednesday the company has not yet determined how it will respond to the change in provincial rules, as it just received the information on Tuesday.

Northwood's complex in Halifax was ravaged by COVID-19 in the earliest days of the pandemic, when 53 residents died between March and May 2020.

'COVID is not over'

Elderly people are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Since July 1, 2022, 378 people have died of the virus in Nova Scotia, and the median age of those who died during that period is 84.

Gary MacLeod, chair of Advocates for the Care of the Elderly, said he would like to see staff in long-term care homes honour the wishes of residents and their families, with staff donning masks if requested.

"It's the facilities that call the shots, when in fact, the families should be respected as to what they want.…  After all, it is their home."

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

MacLeod said he hopes the changes in long-term care homes don't result in even more deaths.

He said Tuesday's comments from the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, contained mixed messages that the urgency of the pandemic is now over, but safety precautions should still be taken around older and immunocompromised people.

"They're speaking out of both sides of their mouth, really. People will listen to this and say, 'oh, you know, COVID is over.' COVID is not over. It's far from over."