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Families want visitor rules relaxed in highly vaccinated Ontario long-term care homes

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TORONTO —
Esther Hladkowicz longs to have a proper visit with her father.

Waving to him through a window at his Ottawa long-term care home is the closest she’s got to him since September and she says the routine has become increasingly painful now that he is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hladkowicz said her father, who has advanced dementia, will point to the courtyard and ask to come outside when she and her daughter drop by on sunny days.

“We have a 15, 20 minute visit, just basically telling him why we can’t do that,” she said. “It’s cruel.”

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Families and advocates are calling on the Ontario government to loosen the rules around visits to long-term care residents now that most are fully vaccinated against the virus that killed thousands in nursing homes earlier in the pandemic.

As of Friday, the province reported 96 per cent of long-term residents were fully vaccinated against the virus and 87 per cent of staff had received one dose. COVID-19 deaths in the facilities have largely dropped off since this winter’s vaccine campaign prioritized the sector.

Loved ones are now arguing that overly cautious policies are keeping them from visiting outdoors with lonely relatives who’ve been struggling with isolation for over a year.

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“It’s vital now, because it’s been too long,” Hladkowicz said. “The neglect and the isolation, you can see it.”

A commission examining the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario’s long-term care homes issued a report last month calling for an overhaul of what it described as a neglected sector. It found the mental health consequences of pandemic restrictions for residents were akin to those faced by prisoners in solitary confinement.

Days later, the Ministry of Long-Term Care announced that some social interactions, like communal dining, could resume and fully vaccinated caregivers could hug residents.

Resident outings for social reasons and temporary absences remain banned, as are visits from family members who aren’t official caregivers.

A ministry spokesperson said “further direction” on allowing social outings for fully vaccinated residents would be issued after the province’s stay-at-home order — recently extended to June 2 — lifts.

Advocates argue, however, that the policy needs to be reconsidered now.

Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University specializing in family caregiving, said the recent rule changes following the scathing report from the Long-Term Care Commission amount to public-relations spin.

Visitor policies have barely changed since last fall, Stamatopoulos argued, despite high vaccination rates that would allow for safe outdoor visits, where experts agree that risk of COVID-19 transmission is far lower if proper distancing precautions are taken.

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“This is ludicrous at this point,” Stamatopoulos said.

The delay in updating the policy extends the burden on some family members who’ve qualified as caregivers and are allowed into the homes, while also prolonging the suffering of residents who’ve been separated from loved ones for a year, she said.

“It’s just cruel not to let them come down and actually spend a little bit of time outside with their loved ones, with their grandchildren, with their nieces and nephews,” she said.

Hladkowicz said she has watched her father decline cognitively in long-term care during the pandemic, and the family is unsure whether he is being taken outdoors. She’d like policies to change to allow more relatives to visit, and to see the number of essential caregivers allowed for a resident be bumped up from two.

Other families have been fighting to allow their relatives to leave facilities that are still under outbreak protocols due to a continuing trickle of staff cases.

Jennifer Couperthwaite’s grandmother lives in a publicly-funded York Region facility that has been in outbreak since March, mostly due to COVID-19 cases among staff. There aren’t cases on her grandmother’s floor, but Couperthwaite said she’s still unable to go outdoors.

Couperthwaite brings her young son by to wave at his great-grandmother through her second-floor window. Otherwise, she’s been limited to virtual calls, where Couperthwaite said it’s been difficult to see her grandmother decline.

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“We’re losing her, and it’s just been hard to accept that,” she said. “We could have been reunited with her by now.”

Couperthwaite would like to see policies reflect high vaccination rates among residents. Until then, she said she’s dreaming of the day she can sit outside for a distanced lunch and afternoon chat with her grandmother.

“Even just to sit six feet apart and bring her a tea. I just want that, it’s nothing much,” she said. “I just want it to not be through plexiglass or a window.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2021.

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