Residents of Ontario long-term care homes can visit outdoors with family and friends starting this weekend. While a reason to rejoice for many, some family members say the new relaxed rules fall short in light of the province's high vaccination rates.
As of Friday, 96 per cent of long-term care residents in Ontario have been fully immunized with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 59 per cent of Ontarians 16 and older have also had at least one dose.
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.
"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," said Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of long-term care, in a release Friday.
Given the encouraging numbers and words, Josh Horowitz was disappointed when the province said Saturday's resumption of long-term care visitations would take place solely outdoors.
"If the person in the long-term care home is doubly vaccinated and the person seeing them is doubly vaccinated, then I still don't understand why there are still red flags and hoops to jump through to see your family members," he said.
The frustration for Horowitz stems from the fact that his two grandparents in long-term care are immobile and therefore are not able to go outdoors for visits.
Advocates and family members had been calling for the strict rules in the long-term care sector to change given 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.
'Overall, this is good news,' says geriatrician
The announcement came in a letter to the province's long-term care homes by Associate Deputy Minister Erin Hannah.
"This means that effective tomorrow, general visitors can come to LTC homes to see their loved ones for an outdoor visit," Hannah wrote on Friday.
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and member of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, says the news is welcome, albeit a little late.
"It's what we've been calling for for a while," he said. "Overall, this is good news."
"Recognizing that the risk for outdoor transmission is markedly lower, recognizing that residents in long-term care homes have very high rates of vaccination...It's time to allow them to interact meaningfully and safely with their loves ones," Stall said.
Gayle Konarek hasn't seen her 95-year-old father in more than a year due to heavy restrictions.
"It's truly heart wrenching not to be able to see him. I don't know if he'll remember me, to be honest, it's been so long," she said, becoming visibly emotional while describing her father, who suffers from dementia.
She phoned his facility when she heard about the relaxed rules, and was met with even more heartache.
"I spoke to the office manager and he said, 'as of yesterday, one of the staff has tested positive [for COVID-19],'" she said.
The home is not conducting outdoor visits at this point until it is out of their heightened surveillance, which Konarek described as a type of lockdown. She said the staff member who tested positive had not been vaccinated.
"It's frustrating because my dad has been fully vaccinated since February," said Konarek, who has also received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
New protocol 'doesn't do enough'
Meanwhile, 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 toward 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.
Horowitz says that although the plan is a good start, he still doesn't know when he'll get to see his grandparents again. The ministry has not hinted about when indoor visits can resume.
"It's a good start...but it doesn't do enough. Because if your loved ones are not mobile, like mine aren't, then it's not even possible to see them," he said.