The Saskatchewan government says it will reopen care homes to visitors, but only under certain conditions, starting a week from now.
Beginning on April 29, residents will be able to receive two family members at a time indoors, provided at least 90 per cent of residents at that home are fully vaccinated. Three weeks must have also elapsed since second doses were administered at the home.
Up to four visitors per resident will be allowed to visit outdoors.
The province said nothing about thresholds for visitation being tied to vaccine uptake among care home workers or about requirements for visitors to be fully vaccinated, though visitors will have to follow all public health rules, including mandatory masks.
As of Wednesday, 79 per cent of Saskatchewan health-care workers, including but not limited to staff at care homes, had received their first dose, while 47 per cent had received two doses.
As of April 16 — the last time the province released such data — the vast majority of care home residents had been vaccinated.
Health officials say they would now include health-care workers in their reporting of vaccination uptake among the general population.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, has said some outbreaks have happened in care homes where not all workers got vaccinated.
Dozens of homes already qualify
The province announced the visitation changes — eagerly anticipated by families ever since homes were locked down in mid-November amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — on Thursday afternoon, shortly before a news conference hosted by Everett Hindley, the province's minister in charge of issues affecting seniors.
"This is by far the number one question and the number one phone call and letter and email that I have heard and had come into my office," Hindley said. "No, we can't fill up Mosaic Stadium just yet. But some of us can go see mom on Mother's Day."
Hindley says 43 of Saskatchewan's long-term care homes already qualify for visitation.
"Many more will qualify in the coming days," he said.
Long-term care homes are regulated and inspected by the Saskatchewan Health Authority, and so the SHA will decide when such homes are eligible to ease visitor restrictions, according to a release.
Privately operated personal care homes, which are regulated by the Ministry of Health, "are responsible for aligning themselves with the same operational policies as the SHA and must be able to verify that they meet the requirements," according to the release.
Ryan Meili, the leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, echoed Hindley in saying it's been hard for families to be separated for so long. Visitation was severely restricted beginning on Nov. 19.
But Meili says some key things need to happen.
"I would want to make sure that all of the staff working there and anyone who's on a list to go and visit is fully vaccinated, because the last thing we want, especially as we see growth in new variants, is to get back to what we saw this winter," he said, referring to the second wave and its deadly impact on Saskatchewan care homes.
Deaths in care homes continued to rise in early 2021
Hindley's appearance came the day after the Saskatchewan NDP grilled him in the legislative assembly about the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the privately operated but publicly supported Parkside Extendicare home in Regina.
Matt Love, Opposition critic for issues affecting seniors, also cited new figures on COVID-19 deaths in care homes that Hindley recently provided in an after-hours committee.
The new figures showed a continued rise in deaths among long-term care and personal-care home residents from late January and to mid-April, a period in which such residents were prioritized for early vaccination against COVID-19.
In total, the number of deaths increased to 146 from 90.
As of Jan. 27, the breakdown of deaths stood as follows:
Affiliate Special Care Homes (Private Non-Profit): 27.
Contract Special Care Homes (Private For-Profit): 39.
Personal Care Homes (Private): 7.
Saskatchewan Health Authority Care Homes (Public): 17.
As Hindley reported, and as Love underscored Wednesday, as of April 12 the cumulative death figures had increased as follows:
Affiliate Special Care Homes (Private Non-Profit): 48.
Contract Special Care Homes (Private For-Profit): 44.
Personal Care Homes (Private): 23.
Saskatchewan Health Authority Care Homes (Public): 31.
Love says many deaths took place at Parkside Extendicare, pointed to the facility's outdated use of four-person bedrooms, and called on the Saskatchewan government to end its "deadly relationship" with the company. The Saskatchewan Health Authority contracts Extendicare to operate Parkside and four other care homes in the province.
WATCH | Love grills seniors minister on care home deaths
Extendicare has already confirmed it will no longer house people four to a room.
"We share in the sadness of our community over the devastating toll COVID-19 has taken on Extendicare Parkside and other long-term care homes across the country," company spokesperson Laura Gallant said.
"Extendicare continues to believe seniors' care, and the support it receives, must be modernized to meet to needs of residents. This includes increased staffing levels and buildings that are built to modern standards to keep residents safe."
The company also called for a "sustainable funding model" with the Saskatchewan government.
'An old style of doing things'
Hindley said the number of deaths at Parkside is of "grave concern," but added he does not want to step on the toes of Saskatchewan's ombudsman, who is conducting an investigation into the Parkside outbreak.
"She hasn't reached out to me personally as the minister," Hindley said of the ombudsman. "I don't believe she's reached out to my office."
Hindley says no new care homes built in the province since 2007 have featured four-person bedrooms.
"That's an old style of doing things," he said.
Saskatchewan's oldest seniors have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to updated statistics released Thursday, just under half of all COVID-19 deaths in the province, 234, have been among people aged 80 and over.