TORONTO — The last time Elisha Lemoire saw her father in person, she dropped him off at the hospital for surgery, hugged him and told him, "I love you. You've got this."
But that was six weeks ago, and complications that led to a massive stroke have left her father in Kingston General Hospital since then. Because of COVID-19 visitor policies, she has not been allowed in to see him.
Since the start of the pandemic, Lemoire and thousands of other people across Ontario have grappled with restrictions that leave their loved ones with little to no in-person support from family. Many hospitals have started this month to ease those policies, but several more restrictive ones remain in place, even as the province at large entered Step 3 of its reopening.
"I walk around Kingston when I was down there and I see people eating on patios and now people can eat indoors, but I can’t go in with a face shield, mask and full-on suit to see my dad one on one?" said Lemoire, who is from London, Ont.
The current policy at the Kingston hospital is to allow daily visits for every inpatient from one registered family member. It was recently relaxed, as they previously only allowed visits every other day.
Lemoire said she understands the need to only allow in one person at a time, but wishes she could alternate with her mom. She and her brother had a virtual visit with their father recently, but she said talking through an iPad to someone who may not even know who she is right now was very challenging.
"(If) he could see me in person, I could hold his hand, we could touch," she said.
"It’s really tough to advocate for a loved one virtually. My mom maybe is more of a milder advocate. She's just going to spend time with my dad, versus my brother and I asking questions of the doctors."
Elizabeth Bardon, a vice-president at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, said in a statement that the hospital understands the importance of family to patients receiving care.
"We are continually evaluating changes to our family presence policy in light of community vaccination rates, COVID levels within and outside of the hospital, availability of staffing, and critical care capacity," she wrote.
Across the province there is a patchwork of visitor policies. At least one has a general ban on visitors, many have limited inpatients to one designated visitor, or two designated visitors who can't visit at the same time.
Health Sciences North, in Sudbury, Ont., this week began allowing two "designated care partners" to visit inpatients at the same time, as well as allow end-of-life patients to have additional visitors beyond their two "designated care partners."
Some hospitals say they are awaiting further direction from the provincial government, which last issued guidance on the topic from the chief medical officer of health in June 2020.
That direction, issued when case counts were falling after the first wave of COVID-19, urged hospitals to allow family or caregiver visits and balance the benefits to patients with the risks to everyone.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said no changes are being considered right now.
"As set out under the Public Hospitals Act, hospital administrators are responsible for the day-to-day management of their hospitals, including the delivery of services and implementation of programs, and procedures adopted by the hospital board," Carly Luis said in a statement. "This includes hospital visitation policies."
Dr. Michael Warner, an intensive care physician at Michael Garron Hospital, has been urging a loosening of visitor restrictions, and said the patchwork shows that the policies are not based on evidence.
"In my view, hospitals should actually be leading here," he said. "We are the experts and we need to signal to the public what’s safe, not wait for government restrictions to be lifted or economic reopening to occur."
Chatham-Kent Health Alliance recently began allowing two care partners to visit, though at separate times, and outdoor visits for more family or friends.
CEO Lori Marshall said that is likely to remain in place as the hospital's visitor policy throughout the COVID era - and even beyond that, it will likely be used to inform visitation policies during the flu season in future years. She can't see ever returning to the pre-COVID open-door policy.
"We’ve learned a lot through this pandemic and I think it’s unlikely we would ever return to that degree of openness in the future," she said.
"In our particular instance we have a high school right across from us and it was not uncommon prior to the pandemic to have 200 kids in our cafeteria for lunch. I think that’s a practice, for example, that we will likely not go back to."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press