Hospitals update visitor policies due to community spread amid Omicron wave

·3 min read

Several hospitals in Ontario have introduced stricter visitor policies amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Unity Health Toronto and the University Health Network– two major hospital networks in the province's most populous city – said inpatients with stays shorter than seven days would not be allowed visitors.

"We will be reducing the presence of visitors/Essential Care Partners due to the increasing community spread of COVID-19," Unity Health wrote in a statement, noting the updated policy was in effect Tuesday.

The hospital network, which consists of St. Joseph's Health Centre, St. Michael's Hospital and Providence Healthcare, said inpatients who are expected to have a hospital stay of longer than seven days can identify two designated visitors, with one allowed to visit within a 24-hour period provided they show proof of vaccination and ID.

Inpatient visits will be a maximum of three hours, while patients attending outpatient clinic appointments and day surgery or in the emergency department will generally not be allowed visitors, it said.

Similar changes to the visitor policy at the University Health Network took effect Tuesday.

No visitors will be allowed for patients in hospital for fewer than seven days and one pre-approved essential care provider will be allowed to visit outpatients "if essential to supporting safety while in hospital," it said. Essential care providers will be allowed to visit patients who self-identify as Indigenous, it added.

The changes caused some to express concern about the policies' impact on patients.

"The indignity of it is sad, like the lack of humanity of it frustrates me," said Dr. Mariam Hanna, a pediatric allergist and clinical immunologist who has had family members and friends admitted to hospitals during the pandemic.

Hanna said hospitals should allow patients at least one visitor to help relay important medical information and provide any other support — physical or emotional — required. She argued that could be done safely with the combination of several public health measures including proof-of-vaccination, mask wearing and rapid tests.

"We are only human. And we need others to help us," she said.

Other hospitals also tightened their policies.

The Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto said inpatients were allowed one fully vaccinated designated visitor each day but only outpatients with "significant need" will be permitted one pre-approved companion. The hospital noted some exceptions apply, such as for patients at the end of their lives, those under 18 years of age, pregnant patients in labour and Indigenous patients.

In Dryden, Ont., the Dryden Regional Health Centre said each patient will only be permitted one designated essential visitor, who is identified by the patient and is "paramount to the fundamental care and/or mental health of the patient." All visitors must be fully vaccinated and provide proof of a negative antigen test taken within the last 48 hours.

And in Haliburton, Ont., Haliburton Highlands Health Services announced that effective Tuesday, patients in acute care and the emergency departments can only have one essential visitor, provided they show proof of having received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It also said exceptions would be made for palliative, critically ill, and pediatric patients.

Last week, Ontario introduced enhanced province-wide measures at long-term care and retirement homes in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The restrictions include preventing visitors who are not fully vaccinated from visiting loved ones inside the facilities, limiting indoor visits to a maximum of two people per resident at a time, and outdoor visits, where feasible, to a maximum total of four people per resident at a time.

At the time, Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the enhanced measures "will provide the best level of protection possible" to some of "our most vulnerable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press

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