Long-term care residents are now permitted to leave their homes for short-stays and temporary absences, the province announced Friday, provided the facilities meet certain requirements.
"This is a day we have all looked forward to, and it is my hope that these welcome changes will improve our residents' quality of life, while keeping them safe," said Ontario Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton in a news release.
According to the release, short-stays do not include being away from the home overnight and typically include visiting family or running errands.
Homes are expected to provide the residents with a medical mask they must wear at all times during their absence. Long-term care homes must also actively screen residents when they return, but they don't have to be tested or to self-isolate.
Residents are also allowed to leave their quarters for multiple nights but that will be at the discretion of the home.
Long-term care homes have been hit hard throughout the pandemic, given their vulnerable population of residents and health-care workers who were often employed in multiple facilities. Several have become the target of lawsuits, especially after a report by Canadian Forces personnel brought in to support the homes outlined shocking allegations of negligence and abuse.
In Ontario alone, 5,932 residents have been infected with the novel coronavirus as of Friday. Of those, 1,814 have died, according to the province's daily epidemiological survey. Many of the province's health-care workers in the homes have also been affected by the virus. Currently, 2,639 are confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19.
Eight of those health-care workers have died.
Homes will decide on trips
The ministry says homes will decide these trips on "a case-by-case basis based on safety factors like the risk associated with the absence," and whether the home has the capacity to help the residents self-isolate upon their return, which is required for overnight absences.
"As Ontarians begin to resume their pre-COVID activities, residents in long-term care will be able to get out and about in their communities and spend time with loved ones again," Fullerton said.
These updated policies come following the advice of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams. An update to the policy for visits to the long-term care homes is expected to be released next week.
Status of COVID-19 cases
Ontario reported an additional 122 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, while the number of patients in hospital with confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus climbed considerably.
The new cases are concentrated primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, with 32 in Toronto, 27 in Peel Region and 15 in York Region. Ottawa reported another 17 cases as well.
The rest are scattered throughout various regions of southern and eastern Ontario.
In his daily news conference, Premier Doug Ford urged Ontarians to continue being vigilant with their mask-wearing, hand-washing, and physical distancing.
"I don't think we're out of the woods by any means. This thing could come back and bite us in the backsides," he said.
After falling to below 80 on August 9, the five-day rolling average new daily cases — a measure that smoothes peaks and valleys in data — has been trending upward since.
The province has now seen a total 41,935 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in late January. Of those, around 90.7 per cent are considered resolved. Another 83 were marked resolved in today's report.
There are currently about 1,103 confirmed, active infections provincewide, a figure that has slowly but steadily increased over the last several days.
Ford urges caution but pleased Ontario hasn't seen surge
Ford did express his concern with the current number of active cases, saying the virus "moves like an Australian bush fire," but was pleased Ontario hasn't seen a surge in cases since the province's move into Stage 3 of its economic COVID-19 recovery plan.
The premier also displayed a chart in his news conference today — one that compared Ontario's current COVID-19 standing to specific U.S. states, praising the province's current status.
"We're doing pretty good overall, we're different people than the U.S.," he said.
Ford said he showed the comparison because Ontario's population is similar to some of the states south of the border.
"We have a large population, diverse population. I want to show the people we're doing a good job."
WATCH | Ford praises Ontarians as he displays new chart comparing the province to U.S. states
Sixty-one patients in Ontario hospitals have COVID-19, up from 48 the day before. While a relatively large jump, the number is still only a fraction of the more than 1,000 who were hospitalized at the peak of Ontario's outbreak.
Those being treated in intensive care units held steady at 18, while the number of patients on ventilators fell to 12 from 19, the current high for the month of August.
Ontario's network of community, commercial and hospital labs processed nearly 32,000 test samples for the novel coronavirus yesterday. The province has now completed more than 700,000 tests this month, with less 0.4 per cent coming back positive.
Meanwhile, the province's official death toll grew by six and now sits at 2,809. A CBC News count based on data from public health units, a measure that avoids lag times in the provincial reporting system, however, puts the actual toll at 2,839.
All of the figures used in this story are found in the Ministry of Health's daily update, which includes data from up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any particular region on a given day may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit.
Premier Ford blasts Trump
Ford was also asked on Friday whether he would publicly endorse one of the U.S. presidential candidates in their upcoming election.
The premier declined, saying he has "no interest" and that he is "buried" in his pandemic response for Ontario.
WATCH | Ford blasts Trump on his administration's recent tariffs telling him to do 'a little bit of homework'
Instead, he took the opportunity to criticize the U.S. President Donald Trump for his administration's recent aluminum tariffs
"Maybe he should do a little bit of homework and find out that we're their number one customer," said Ford. "He wants to come after us because of politics? Let him. Don't worry, we'll straighten it out."
Schools urged to spend $50M by Thanksgiving
The Ontario government is asking the province's school boards to try to spend $50 million to upgrade air quality in schools by Thanksgiving.
The request comes in a memo sent to boards by the Ministry of Education earlier this week.
The government announced the $50 million in funding for ventilation upgrades earlier this month and is urging boards to speed up spending.
The memo also outlines best practices to improve air quality, including opening school windows to increase air flow and using portable air filtration units where possible.
The co-founder of advocacy group Fix Our Schools says the timeline will be difficult for school boards to meet given how late in the summer the funding has been allocated.
Krista Wylie says the guidelines also fail to take into account the poor condition many older schools are in, making the standards difficult for many boards to achieve.
But Ford stood by the province's request for the tight turnaround
"Everything is immediate nowadays with this pandemic," he said. "We can't wait, we can't go on government time."