Ontario’s long-term care minister says the province wants to take a cautious approach to easing pandemic restrictions for the sector, while stressing that the COVID-19 situation is improving.
Starting Monday, residents can have four designated caregivers, up from two, though only two can visit at a time, after more than a month of strict rules limiting the number of visitors during the Omicron wave. Long-term care residents who’ve had three COVID-19 vaccine doses can resume social day trips.
General visits and other social activities won’t resume until weeks from now — to the dismay of some critics — but Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra said that’s because the province is being cautious as the spate of outbreaks and infections begins to wane.
“While we’re seeing the indicators going in the right direction, we still think that caution is very important,” the minister said at a Mississauga, Ont., funding announcement.
On Feb. 21, residents will be allowed to have three visitors at a time, and all residents can go on social day trips regardless of their vaccination status. Social activities within the homes can include up to 10 people and external visits like personal care services can also resume.
Restrictions will further roll back on March 14, when kids under five can visit again, residents can have four visitors at a time and all residents can go on overnight absences.
As rules began easing on Monday, Calandra said vaccinations have been helping homes weather the Omicron wave. He couldn’t provide details, however, on the vaccination status of residents who’ve been dying in increasing numbers since the new variant took hold.
Deaths in the sector spiked in January during the Omicron wave, with 185 reported over the past two weeks. The number of homes in outbreak stood at 290 on Monday — or 46 per cent of all homes — down slightly from last week.
A mandate requiring that all staff in the sector receive third shots of COVID-19 vaccine was recently pushed back until March due to Omicron outbreaks and other disruptions. Even so, the province’s long-term care homes are highly vaccinated settings.
As of late last week, the province said 84 per cent of eligible staff had received booster shots, 91 per cent of eligible residents had three doses and some had begun receiving fourth shots.
Calandra said three doses has made a “dramatic difference” for residents, and said the province is seeing positive trends in long-term care homes because of vaccinations.
“I think in long-term care the evidence is very strong that two (shots) and a booster has given our residents significant protection,” Calandra said in an interview following the announcement.
Deaths from the virus during Omicron haven’t reached levels seen in earlier waves of the virus before vaccinations were available, but the last month has seen a significant number of virus-related fatalities.
The province said 18 virus-related long-term care resident deaths were reported over the weekend. Calandra couldn’t provide information on Monday about trends in vaccination status among residents who died from COVID-19 during Omicron, but said the province is “following it daily.”
He said he “doesn’t suspect” that Omicron outbreaks have disrupted planned fourth dose immunization efforts in homes for residents, though there were some issues with worker clinics.
However, he said there has been little hesitation among staff to get third doses, with an already high uptake for the shots despite “very big challenges” over the last month which saw workers test positive for the virus in greater numbers than at any point in the pandemic.
He said the lack of hesitancy on third shots helped the province decide on a later March date for the third-dose worker deadline with the ability for homes to give people extensions on a case-by-case basis.
While outbreak numbers have been dropping, Calandra said the province is also doing more inspections of the homes to ensure standards are being met, as well as onboarding more inspectors over the coming months.
Ontario reported 2,155 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 486 people in intensive care on Monday. Not all hospitals report data from the weekends, but the numbers showed a drop from 2,983 hospitalizations and 555 patients in intensive care a week ago.
The province also reported 11 more deaths from the virus.