Seventy-five-year-old Betty Lindsay is staying on a special rehab unit at Pioneer Village, a long-term care home in Regina, while she undergoes intensive chemotherapy for Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Her daughter, Heidi Lindsay, said Betty had been looking forward to a Mother's Day family gathering this weekend with her four children, including a daughter who lives in Winnipeg. Then, several COVID-19 cases were confirmed on Betty's ward on May 1 and general visitation was suspended.
Heidi said she asked the unit manager if they could arrange a family visit in the courtyard with physical distancing and masks and was told, "No, your mom can't even go outside by herself for fresh air."
Heidi is livid that her mother, who doesn't have COVID-19, wouldn't be allowed to visit with her family outdoors at the same time that Saskatchewan residents who are actually infected with COVID-19 are legally allowed to leave their homes. The province axed its mandatory isolation rules at the end of February.
"My mom — from the time that she found out — has been crying non-stop. Very emotional, very sad. It was something she was really looking forward to," said Heidi.
But medical health officer Dr. Johnmark Opondo, speaking on behalf of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), said not only does the policy allow those visits, he encourages them.
About 75 care homes and hospital units in Saskatchewan have outbreaks — with two or more COVID-19 cases — as of May 5, according to the SHA website.
The most restrictive "red" level category for family presence guidelines still allows a designated family member or support person to enter the facility at any time of day to assist with the physical or emotional care of a resident, but anyone else is deemed a visitor and not essential. During outbreaks, visitors are not allowed except to see patients who are dying.
The guidelines state that outdoor visits are determined in consultation with local medical health officers.
Opondo told CBC News that Mother's Day visits are important and that he's directing care facility managers to accommodate family visits this weekend for residents who are not sick or COVID-19 positive, even if their unit is declared an outbreak zone.
"The recommendation is, 'If I want to take mom out for lunch or a lunch date on Mother's Day, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to do that, unless she's actively sick,'" said Opondo.
Residents who are deemed close contacts but have no symptoms can leave the facility for a family visit — and take a COVID-19 test upon return — or gather outdoors, he said. Only residents who are COVID-19 positive or sick should be isolated, he added.
However, the doctor underscored that level red restrictions that prohibit unfettered public access in outbreak zones are necessary at the start of any outbreak to protect medically fragile residents.
The Lindsay family is particularly sensitive to losing access to their loved one after a painful experience at the start of the pandemic.
Heidi's father, Jim, was a resident at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre in Regina. His adult children took turns visiting him every day and helping with his physical care. That abruptly ended in early April 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions prohibited all visitors at care facilities. Jim died four days later.
After his death, Heidi was approached to be part of a family task force to expand SHA's criteria for compassionate visits — a change that would allow a family support person inside facilities to provide physical and emotional care to residents, not just for end-of-life visits.
Last weekend, on May 1, Heidi arrived at her mom's facility and saw a "hand-scratched note with a marker and piece of paper hanging on the door saying that they're in lockdown and no visitors are permitted," she said.
Heidi said a nurse asked her to leave, and she informed the nurse that — as the essential support person — she had "every right" to be there. She said she asked the manager about arranging an outdoor visit for other family members and was told that couldn't happen.
"I am so incredibly frustrated by this ongoing knee-jerk reaction to a COVID outbreak," said Lindsay. "Every member of our family is vaccinated, boosted, and also had Omicron at the beginning of the year."
Heidi said her mother likes the care staff at Pioneer Village and "didn't want to make waves."
'Time is precious'
Dr. Opondo said visitor bans are short-lived and necessary to "reduce traffic" at a time when staff are trying to implement outbreak precautions and step up infection control.
"At the beginning of every outbreak, it's like a hunkering down to assess, understand, and define the outbreak and then start implementing interventions. And once we see things are stable and improving, we quickly relax," Opondo said.
The medical health officer doesn't agree with the the term lockdown in these cases. He said the SHA limits the scope of an outbreak zone to small units rather than entire facilities.
"I'm looking for the smallest footprint possible because I don't want to impact people unnecessarily." he said
Provincial Health Minister Paul Merriman said he expects facilities to be "as open as possible" with temporary restrictions that are short-lived.
Opondo didn't address the Lindsay family's complaint, but said generally his expectation is that SHA facilities will find a safe way to connect patients and families.
Heidi hopes that the doctor's message will trickle down to frontline workers.
"Time is precious," Opondo said. "And I don't want people to lose time. We've already sacrificed enough. So, the policy of SHA is quite clear, we want to support high-quality, safe family presence, when we can."