TORONTO — Residents of Ontario long-term care homes can visit outdoors with friends and family starting this weekend, the province announced Friday after advocates called for the change to safely reunite isolated seniors with their loved ones.
The associate deputy minister of long-term care announced the policy change in a memo to licensees.
"This is a truly important step for residents and their families, and I know despite the rapid notice, our home partners supported outdoor visits last summer and will be adept at making this a success," Erin Hannah wrote.
Hannah said the change was being made to align with loosening provincial rules around outdoor activities that were set to go into effect at midnight on Saturday.
"I know you have been planning for this already with the onset of spring and the warmer weather and the impassioned calls from residents and their families to enable them to see one another outside," the memo said.
Esther Hladkowicz, who had been advocating for expanded visitor access, said she was stunned by the policy change after it was quietly announced on Friday.
She immediately booked a 10 a.m. Saturday visit with her father at his Ottawa long-term care home -- their first since last fall. The family has only seen each other through a window for months.
"I'm so excited for tomorrow morning, I'm just beside myself," Hladkowicz said by phone. She's also hopeful that she and her daughter can hold a small outdoor party to celebrate her father's 91st birthday next week.
Advocates and family members had been calling for the strict rules to change in light of high vaccination rates in the homes, which were devastated by thousands of infections and deaths during the first two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outdoor visits were initially not permitted during the provincewide stay-at-home order, set to expire on June 2, but rules around small outdoor gatherings and recreational activities are loosening this weekend as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations drop.
The province's long-term care minister pointed to improving health indicators and high vaccine uptake in a Friday statement about the policy.
"With the excellent uptake of vaccines in long-term care homes, it is the right time to make this very meaningful change that will benefit residents and their families," Merrilee Fullerton said.
The ministry said 96 per cent of long-term care residents were fully immunized and 87 per cent of staff had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Homes are being asked to communicate with communities about how to book visits and about public health measures still in effect, such as COVID-19 screening questions upon arrival, masks and physical distancing.
The ministry said general visitors won't need to take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test for outdoor visits.
A maximum of two general visitors are allowed per resident at one time, in addition to designated essential caregivers. Children aged two and younger do not count towards the visitor maximum, the memo said.
Hannah’s memo said outdoor visits can happen in the "general vicinity" of the home if the facility doesn’t have suitable outdoor space.
Hladkowicz said she's hopeful that rules will continue to relax, with less strict outbreak protocols keeping residents indoors when staff test positive, more flexibility around possible time slots and longer visits.
"They've all had time stolen from them, and we all just want quality visits now," she said.
The news came as Ontario reported a record-high number of COVID-19 vaccine doses given out in a single day.
Health Minister Christine Elliott says 158,524 shots were administered in Ontario since Thursday's report.
More than 7.7 million doses have been administered in Ontario overall.
Also on Friday, the province announced it would resume use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as a second dose.
The province had been holding tens of thousands of shots set to expire on May 31, after it paused use of the vaccine earlier this month over links to rare but potentially fatal blood clots.
The province reported 1,890 new cases of COVID-19 and 27 more deaths from the virus on Friday.
The Ministry of Health said 1,265 people were in hospital with the virus as of Friday morning, including 715 in intensive care and 510 on ventilators.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press