A policy restricting social visits in Ontario long-term care homes could soon change, the minister responsible for the sector said on Wednesday after other pandemic rules loosened across the province.

Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra said he’s reviewing the rules that took effect in late December to protect residents against the infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

He said his department is working with the province’s chief medical officer to ensure “our homes, first and foremost, and the residents are safe,” as the sector continues to battle virus-related outbreaks, staff shortages and deaths.

“Omicron has certainly posed a lot of challenges,” Calandra told a virtual news conference. 

“Having said that, I am in the process right now of reviewing the policy with respect to visitors and homes and I think over the next day or two I’ll have a bit more to say on that.”

Ontario long-term care homes currently won’t accept general visitors or let residents leave for social trips, though two designated caregivers are still allowed to visit each resident. Palliative visits are also permitted and people can leave for essential reasons like medical appointments. 

Meanwhile, businesses that were shuttered last month during the Omicron case surge can now open to 50 per cent capacity and social gatherings can include up to 10 people indoors.

The long-term care restrictions took effect earlier and have lasted longer than the business closures, the five-person cap on social restrictions and two-week school closure that were part of the province’s response to a massive wave of Omicron cases. Surgeries that were paused to preserve health system capacity have also started to resume in stages.

The province has not yet given a timeline for lifting the restrictions on long-term care homes, however, despite residents being subject to some of the strictest and lengthiest isolation rules over the course of the pandemic. 

A commission that looked at COVID-19 in the sector wrote in its final report last spring that the mental health impact of pandemic restrictions on residents were similar to those experienced by prisoners in solitary confinement.

Families and advocates are concerned again about the conditions in the homes, despite residents being vaccinated with up to four doses in many cases and a vaccine mandate applying to workers in the sector. 

Widespread COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths in the homes dropped last year after vaccinations became available. But cases have again skyrocketed with the emergence of Omicron and homes are seeing infection numbers similar to those reported in 2020, when the province called in the military to help with the situation.

Virus deaths among residents have also been rising, with 40 deaths reported over the past two days.

The Omicron variant has also created staffing challenges in the homes, with record numbers of staff testing positive over the past month. The province recently pushed back a late January deadline for workers to get mandatory third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine because of disruptions from the variant, giving workers until March 14 to get the shots.

Fifty-two per cent of long-term care homes were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks as of Wednesday – a slight dip from previous weeks. 

Calandra pointed to a “positive” trend in reduced staff COVID-19 infections over the last few days, adding that province will step in and help if homes need more staff.

There were 2,292 active staff infections reported as of Wednesday, down from 2,686 the previous day and 3,269 a week earlier.

“We’re in a stable position now but we’re of course going to continue to monitor this going forward,” Calandra said. 

Calandra made his comments at what was his second news conference since taking over the long-term care portfolio last month.

He also announced on Wednesday that the government had launched a new website that centralizes information about long-term care homes to help prospective residents and their families search for and compare homes.

The site will include information about waitlists, staff vaccination rates and inspection reports. Calandra said it will ideally grow to feature as much data as possible, including about COVID-19 outbreaks, as the government aims to increase transparency in the sector.

“The more that we can get on this site, it is our commitment to do that,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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