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Ontario eases restrictions in long-term care homes due to high vaccination rate

Wednesday, May 05, 2021 @ 12:30 PM | By John Schofield

Ontario has announced it is relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in long-term care homes — on the same day an additional nine deaths were reported among long-term care residents.

In a May 4 news release, the government said that a high level of COVID-19 vaccination in many long-term care homes will allow residents to safely return to communal dining and social activities to improve their quality of life.

The government said the decision is “based on advice from public health experts and in direct response to residents and their families.” It underlined that staff, visitors and residents of long-term care homes, like all Ontarians, must continue to practise public health measures such as masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene. The news release noted, however, that residents and their caregivers who are fully immunized may have close physical contact beyond what is required for care and supervision, such as hugging.

An update to the chief medical officer of health’s Directive #3 for Long-Term Care Homes that allows for the resumption of group activities such as dining and social events and gatherings was released May 4. The government also released a guidance document for long-term care homes. Further direction on social and temporary outings for fully immunized residents will be issued after the provincial stay-at-home order is lifted, added the release.

“Our government puts the safety and well-being of long-term care residents at the heart of everything we do,” Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said in the news release. “The high vaccination uptake in long-term care homes means we can take further steps towards bringing social interactions back — supporting the mental and emotional well-being of residents while protecting their physical well-being.”

The news release noted that under the updated Directive #3, all residents, regardless of their immunization status, can leave their homes for an essential absence, which includes outdoor exercise, buying groceries or visiting the pharmacy while the stay-at-home order is in place. Essential absences are not permitted when a resident is symptomatic, has been identified as a COVID-19 case or a contact, has been directed by local public health to stay at home.

An easing of restrictions was recommended by seniors’ health-care advocates such as Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics for Toronto-based Sinai Health and the University Health Network.

“With almost every LTC resident vaccinated + the risks of outbreaks significantly declined, the burden of restrictions on them + and their families are doing more harm than good,” he said on Twitter May 2.

In a statement in the government news release, Family Councils of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Residents’ Councils, both of which receive funding from the Ministry of Long-Term Care, endorsed the modified restrictions.

“The updates to Directive #3 are welcomed next steps recognizing outings, absences, connection to community and loved ones, and other social activities are critical to the well-being of residents and families,” the statement read in part. “The door out of this pandemic and the easing of restrictions swings on maximizing vaccine uptake to optimize safety for all.”

As of May 4, the government reported, 95 per cent of long-term care residents across Ontario are fully immunized and more than 85 per cent of staff have received at least their first dose.

The move to ease long-term care restrictions follows the recent release of separate reports by Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk and the Ontario Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission, which examined different aspects of the pandemic’s impact on the long-term care sector. Both reports concluded that the Ministry of Long-Term Care was not adequately prepared to prevent the devastation of COVID-19 on long-term care residents and staff — in part due to years of neglect and weak industry oversight by successive governments.

In a May 3 news release, the Official Opposition NDP asked if the government will review the role of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, in light of the long-term care commission’s findings.

“Will anyone in the Ontario government read the report’s damaging assessments of Dr. Williams’ work as Chief Medical Officer of Health, and review what he didn’t do during the pandemic to try to save lives in long-term care?” NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh said in the release.

To date, there have been 3,771 COVID-19 related deaths in Ontario’s long-term care sector, including 11 staff members.

According to recent news reports, executives at three of Canada’s largest long-term care companies, Chartwell Retirement Residences, Extendicare Inc. and Sienna Senior Living Inc. were paid 2020 bonuses for reaching certain corporate targets.

On May 5, Ontario reported 2,941 new cases of COVID-19 and the virus-related deaths of 44 more patients. The seven-day rolling average of new infections edged down to 3,432, compared to 3,783 on April 28. On May 4, the number of new cases dipped below 3,000 for the first time in more than a month, dropping to 2,791. But nine of the 25 reported deaths involved residents of long-term care homes.

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