TORONTO — Visitor access to long-term care homes in COVID-19 hot spots will be restricted starting next week, the Ontario government announced Tuesday, citing the need to protect vulnerable residents as cases surge.
As of Oct. 5, only staff and people deemed to be essential caregivers or essential visitors will be permitted at long-term care facilities in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.
"This is not something that we take lightly," said Premier Doug Ford. "I know first-hand how hard it can be. But it's absolutely necessary. We can't let COVID-19 get into these homes."
Up to two family members or friends of a resident can register to become an essential caregiver who can enter the facilities even during an outbreak. They would be trained on use of personal protective equipment, the government said. Essential visitors would be able to come into the homes during times such as when a loved one is dying.
Long-term care advocates have been warning that the facilities aren't prepared for a second wave of the novel coronavirus. More than 1,830 long-term care residents have died so far as a result of COVID-19 in the province, along with eight home staff members.
Ford said Tuesday that the government was spending an additional $540 million to help long-term care homes fight the second wave. The funds will be used to provide support to staff, pay for renovations and to bolster infection control.
The premier also promised that every long-term care home will have a two-month supply of personal protective equipment.
The CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents home operators, said the funding announced Tuesday will begin to address some of the existing gaps in the current system. But Donna Duncan said the homes are still dealing with a staffing crisis.
"Ensuring the health and safety of our residents and staff in our homes is critical to our ability to recruit and retain a new workforce," she said. "These measure will help us in our recruiting efforts. We need to recruit an army of employees for long-term care."
On Monday, the province announced an additional $52 million to hire 3,700 more nurses and personal support workers to fight the pandemic. Ford also said there would be more measures to address worker pay in the coming days.
Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University specializing in family caregiving, said the new restrictions on visitors show the government has learned from mistakes it made during the initial months of the pandemic, when all visitors were banned.
Allowing family members into homes as essential caregivers can help address staffing problems, she said.
"Family caregivers are there and can help as a band-aid solution in the interim to hiring professionals," Stamatopoulos said. "You're finally seeing (the government) recognize the value of family caregivers."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford's announcement should have come much earlier in the summer to give homes time to prepare for the second wave.
"The experts in long-term care and the family members and residents are all saying they're not ready," she said. "There's already infections, you know, running through long term care ... the government's done nothing proactively."
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the Progressive Conservative government needs to increase the pay of personal support workers in long-term care to help keep them in the system.
"We need to make sure that they have a wage where they can support themselves and their families," he said.
Meanwhile, a medical director at a Toronto hospital said he was disappointed that the government hadn't announced further restrictions on businesses Tuesday.
"Today you can still go to a banquet hall and attend a wedding with 50 people, you can go to a casino — activities that are clearly associated with the spread of COVID-19 are still being allowed," said Dr. Michael Warner in a video posted online.
Warner, who is the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, said it's time for those on a pandemic "command table" advising the premier to be identified.
"Most of the experts are on the sidelines screaming into the Twitter echo chamber and we are all going to suffer because of this," he said.
Ford said in June that he wouldn't release a list of medical experts guiding his pandemic response because of privacy concerns.
Ontario reported 554 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, after marking a record-high of 700 cases a day earlier. The majority of new cases are in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 62 per cent of the new cases are among people under the age of 40.
In total, 137 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 30 in intensive care.
The province is also reporting 64 new COVID-19 cases related to schools, including at least 37 among students. Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 250 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly-funded schools.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press