OTTAWA — Ontario’s top public health doctor has deemed that only “essential” visitors be allowed in long-term care, retirement and supportive housing as part of the province’s effort to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Ministry of Health’s definition of “essential” is restricted to family of dying or very ill person, or the parent of a child or youth in a treatment setting.

According to a memo obtained by the Canadian Press, the recommendation applies to all long-term care homes, retirement homes, supportive housing and hospices.

In the memo, Ontario chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said no other visitors should be allowed in, and should instead keep in touch with loved ones by phone.

“We will reevaluate this measure in the coming weeks and ensure consistency with my recent guidance on enhanced public health measures,” Williams wrote in the memo, which was released Friday.

Older people and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19, and are also more likely to die if they come into contact with the virus than the average person is.

Until now, the province had merely recommended that visitors to long-term care homes be screened for symptoms and risk factors for the virus, such as recent international travel.

Those screening procedures will still be in place for those deemed to be essential visitors, according to the memo.

Heather Kennedy got the news this morning while visiting her mother in a long-term care home in Ottawa.

She gave up her career to help take care of her 92-year-old mother who has several health issues, including trouble swallowing.

She is typically with her mother several hours every day, she said, and sits with her for every meal to make sure she doesn’t choke. She’s worried about what could happen if she’s suddenly not able to be there.

“I’m very upset,” she said, and she’s not alone. Other families at the home broke down in tears on Saturday morning when they received the news they wouldn’t be able to be with their ailing parents for an undetermined amount of time, she said.

She said she understands the need to protect vulnerable people as supports moves to protect residents, but with so little notice they were not able to prepare emotionally or practically.

Aside from the medical concerns, Kennedy’s husband Julian Morelli said he’s also worried about his mother-in-law and her fellow residents becoming isolated.

“The social isolation factor is huge, it’s important as any medical condition,” he said.

Donna Duncan, the CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, said the news is distressing for families and isolating for residents, but stopping visitors is still the right call.

The priority must be preventing the spread of the virus into homes, for the protection of residents, families, staff and the community.

“We need to manage the higher risk, which is the outbreak, because that impacts far more people and could have devastating implications for a home and a community. which effects far more people,” Duncan said.

Meanwhile the Ontario Caregiver Association is urging people who care for ailing loved ones at home to start making contingency plans, in case they need to be isolated from their vulnerable loved one.

The association would not comment on the recommended visitor restriction in nursing homes, but had several recommendations for people who care for loved ones at home.

In a press release, the association said people should start documenting detailed instructions for the person’s care, and enlist more people to help out in case the primary caregiver falls ill.

The association said people should also consider leveraging technology to help feel connected to their family and friends when they can’t physically be in the same place at the same time.

Ontario has already cancelled public schools in response to the outbreak, and many universities have suspended classes. Several mass gatherings and events have also been cancelled.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2020.

Laura Osman and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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