Residents in B.C.'s long-term care facilities will soon be allowed more visitors and given the freedom to hug their loved ones, under new provincial guidelines announced Thursday.
The new rules, which take effect April 1, will eliminate the requirement for a resident to have a single designated social visitor. Residents will be allowed up to two visitors at a time, as well as a child.
"There have been no groups more adversely affected in our province than our seniors, elders and people who work in long-term care and assisted living," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
"I am very, very pleased that we are at a place where we can make some changes that will affect people's quality of life."
The province is also dropping the requirement for residents to stay two metres apart from their friends or family, although measures like face masks and handwashing will still be in place.
Guests can visit in a resident's room without staff monitoring. Visitors will not need to be vaccinated, but will still have to book in advance and be screened and are expected to stick to one resident, Henry said.
Facilities must provide time for visits of at least an hour long, although Henry said some residents may want a shorter visit. The province will continue to allow residents to have one designated essential visitor, which includes physical and hospice care.
Residents won't have to isolate after going on outings and facilities will no longer require a two-week isolation period for residents who are admitted.
Care homes will restart communal dining and small group social and recreational activities for residents within a facility unit or floor.
Henry noted the April 1 date is to give the facilities time to adjust their policies. She said she's looking to further ease long-term care restrictions by June 30, the date by which B.C. is aiming to provide at least one vaccine dose to every adult in the province.
Social connections 'outweigh risks'
COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths in long-term care facilities have fallen dramatically since the province immunized the majority of long-term care staff and residents in the first phase of its vaccination rollout.
Henry said Thursday three care-home outbreaks remain in B.C., compared to 42 in January. She cautioned it's likely there will be more outbreaks in care homes as restrictions ease and community transmission remains high.
"But we are at a point where the benefits of having those social connections and interactions outweigh the risks," Henry said.
"And we know that we can manage those risks with the vast majority of residents and staff now being protected with immunization."
Facilities that experience outbreaks will suspend social visits and will require advanced booking and visitor health screening.
Henry acknowledged she has heard concerns about guidelines being inconsistently applied in different care facilities.
"It is absolutely a challenge," she said. "We've been consulting with care homes, with the care providers association and others to make sure they are well aware of the expectations."
The easing of restrictions has been long-awaited. Some families and seniors have demanded changes to the province's visitation policy, which it first implemented in March 2020, arguing the harm of isolation outweighs the risk of COVID-19.
A report from Isobel Mackenzie's office last fall found residents had used more anti-psychotic medications while restrictions were in place.
They had also suffered a spike in unexplained weight loss, worsening moods and symptoms of depression.