Ontario is lifting mandatory COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated visitors, caregivers and staff at long-term care homes even as some facilities continue to battle outbreaks of the virus.
The new policy will take effect on Friday, the same day the province will lift public heath restrictions on other sectors as it moves to the third phase of its reopening plan.
"These changes are made possible because of the incredible efforts of millions of Ontarians who rolled up their sleeves and got vaccinated," Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said in a statement.
Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people will still need to be tested for COVID-19 before entering the homes.
Fully vaccinated people will need to show their receipt of vaccination with their second dose administered at least 14 days prior to the visit and have no symptoms.
Also on Friday, the province is set to lift limits on visitors to a long-term care home and permit buffet dining, resident absences, off-site excursions and activities like singing and dancing.
Other changes have taken effect this month in the highly vaccinated care homes in Ontario that suffered major COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths during the first year of the pandemic.
Indoor visits with up to two general visitors and two caregivers were permitted starting July 7 and visits of 10 people were allowed outdoors.
Personal care services like haircuts have also resumed and a limit on designated caregivers has been lifted.
The province has also made it mandatory that staff in long-term care disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status. Those who don't take the vaccine for non-medical reasons must undergo mandatory education about the importance of immunization.
The government reported that as of Monday, 93 per cent of long-term care staff had at least one COVID-19 dose and 87 per cent were fully vaccinated. The ministry said "virtually all" residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Long-Term Care said experts and the province's top doctor have all recommended discontinuing routine surveillance testing of fully immunized people in long-term care homes who have no symptoms of COVID-19.
"That said, we will remain vigilant and can quickly reintroduce any safety measures if necessary," Mark Nesbitt said.
Since the pandemic began, 3,788 long-term care residents and 13 staff have died from COVID-19 and thousands more have been infected.
Vaccinations that began in December have largely reversed the pattern of widespread outbreaks in long-term care, with most of the outbreaks reported among staff members. But on Wednesday, the province reported active COVID-19 outbreaks in three homes with infections among residents.
One facility in Burlington, Ont., reported two more resident deaths from COVID-19 this week, in an outbreak linked to the more transmissible Delta variant.
Halton Region Public Health reported that four residents at the Village of Tansley Woods have died since the outbreak was declared on June 28, with 19 residents and four staff infected.
Schlegel Villages, which owns and operates the home, said only three resident deaths had been confirmed to be linked to COVID-19.
"Regardless of the cause of death, I know the team there, as in any of our Villages, feels the weight of grief deeply when they must say goodbye to a resident," a spokesman said in an emailed statement.
A spokeswoman for the health unit said the four residents who died had all tested positive for the virus but in one case, COVID-19 has not been determined to be the main cause of death. The health unit is still investigating.
She added that the high vaccination rate in long-term care is helping to protect people, with mild symptoms in most infected residents and less severe disease compared with outbreaks earlier in the pandemic.
The home has been trying to increase staff vaccinations while battling the outbreak.
A vaccination clinic was held on site earlier this month and another clinic is being planned for this week. Schlegel Villages said 77 per cent of staff had received two shots while 90 per cent of them has "committed" to getting the two shots.
An outbreak at another Schlegel-owned home in Kitchener, Ont., was declared over this week.
St. Joseph's Villa in Hamilton declared a facility-wide outbreak as of this week.The president of St. Joseph's confirmed that the outbreak was declared after third-party workers at a hair salon at the facility tested positive for the virus. Four residents also tested positive.
John Woods said all service providers are subject to the same screening measures as staff and visitors, which includes a rapid COVID-19 test.
He said 93 per cent of residents and 72 per cent of staff are vaccinated.
The province reported fewer than four infections among staff and residents, respectively, at that facility and another home in Waterloo.
Ontario reported 153 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and seven deaths from the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press