Residents of Ontario's long-term care homes could lose their beds if they leave the home overnight for social purposes during the holidays, under a new provincial policy intended to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The new policy came into effect on Dec. 17.
"These temporary enhanced and responsive measures are necessary to provide optimal safety and support to residents, and to safeguard the staff who are critical to caring for residents," a ministry spokesperson said in a statement provided to CBC News on Friday. "We are closely monitoring the evolving situation in our long-term care homes, and will continue to work with the Chief Medical Officer of Health [Dr. Kieran Moore] to determine if further measures are necessary."
Specifically, the statement reads that a resident who leaves overnight "may be temporarily discharged and need to follow the re-admission protocol to return at a later date."
A memo from Erin Hannah, Ontario's associate deputy minister of long-term care for policy and pandemic response, states "overnight absences are currently suspended due to the high transmissibility and prevalence of the Omicron variant within many Ontario communities."
Hannah's memo states that if a resident's absence from a home is less than three months, they'd be placed into a "re-admission" category, which is the highest-ranking category for vacant beds.
Longer absences would require the resident to go through a truncated assessment with a placement coordinator; if the resident is accepted, they'd also go into the "re-admission" category.
Hannah's memo also notes that essential, medical, and palliative absences are still permitted, regardless of a resident's vaccination status.
Social day absences for fully-vaccinated residents are also still permitted.
No information about how long the policy may be in place was provided.
One of the facilities affected is Essex's Iler Lodge, where a letter about the new policy was recently sent out to residents and their families.
'A little unbelievable'
Dillin Redmile, who was visiting his grandmother at Iler Lodge on Friday, said the new policy "a little unbelievable."
"No matter what the circumstances, you should be able to spend time with your family," he said. "What's one night really going to do if you go hang out with your nephew, or son, or grandson?"
Redmile said his grandmother had initially waited for about a month to get a bed at Iler Lodge.
Other COVID-19 measures in place
When contacted by CBC News on Friday, the company that operates Iler Lodge, Revera, didn't say how many residents had chosen to leave overnight.
"Please know that we appreciate how difficult this news is for families," Susan Schutta, who is vice-president of corporate affairs for Revera, said in an email. "This pandemic has been long, exhausting and heartbreaking for our staff and residents, as well as for their families."
The policy is one of a number of measures being implemented at long-term care homes by the province this month.
Testing staff, students, volunteers, and caregivers multiple times a week;
A requirement for caregivers to be fully vaccinated, unless they have a medical exemption or are attending to a resident in palliative care;
Limiting indoor visits to two people per resident, and outdoor visits to four people per resident;
Cohorting residents for higher-risk activities, such as singing and dancing, and discouraging large social activities;
Strongly encouraging long-term care homes to restrict general visitors to people who are fully vaccinated.