As outbreaks ease, push is on to allow more care-home visits

With no reported outbreaks in seniors homes in the Island Health, Northern Health or Interior Health regions, it might be time to look at approaches to restrictions on visitations, says B.C.’s seniors advocate.

“We are going to have to come to grips with this, because if not now, then when?” Isobel Mackenzie said Wednesday.

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“If we are saying, well, we just can’t allow visits while this virus is circulating at all, then we’re saying people are never going to see their loved ones.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, has said that B.C. will continue to take a provincial approach to restrictions on visitation to seniors homes and acute-care hospitals because of the vulnerability of seniors to the disease.

Of the 162 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the province, 111 have been at long-term care and assisted living homes. As of Wednesday, there were outbreaks in 14 long-term care and assisted-living facilities, all the in Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions.

Henry said on May 15 that health authorities were reviewing visitation rules and talked about the possibility of allowing one visitor per resident “maybe in June.” She said this week that authorities continue to review the situation.

“Please don’t think because we couldn’t put a specific date on what we are talking about that there’s no timeline on the horizon,” she said.

Facilities vary in terms of their configuration, rooms and staffing, and some are dealing with active outbreaks, she said.

“The challenge, really, is to ensure that we protect the entire community,” Henry said. “I want this as much as anybody else does.”

Despite Vancouver Island’s low number of confirmed cases Henry said the virus remains in all communities and there continues to be essential and non-essential movement of people across the province.

There are 244 confirmed active cases in B.C., and just one on Vancouver Island, which has had a total of 127 cases.

“It is not the time yet where we can start thinking that we are safe in any community,” Henry said. “We know that the virus can still be here. And that reality is we know that people can be asymptomatic or early on in their illness may not recognize their symptoms, and it can be transmitted to others during that period of time.”

Mackenzie acknowledges it’s a difficult call.

“The argument is that the virus is everywhere and people are starting to move about, that’s the rationale,” she said.

“But, you know, at what point will we look at a regional response? Our overall numbers just are very, very, very, very low.”

Last year, close to 8,000 people died in long-term care facilities in B.C., Mackenzie said. Based on that, it’s likely as many 2,000 residents will have died of causes unrelated to COVID-19 over the past three months, she said.

“But during that period of time, they didn’t see their family until maybe the last 48 hours,” Mackenzie said. “So we really have to think about the risk. What about the totality of somebody’s life and the quality of life and the quality of their final months, days and hours of life.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged the pain felt by families wanting to visit loved ones, but doubled down on the need to continue visitation restrictions, pointing to four deaths announced Monday at the Langley Lodge. There have been 21 COVID-19-related deaths at the facility.

“COVID-19 is a pernicious enemy and people who it targets the most effectively are people who are living in long-term care and acute care,” Dix said.

“Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to stop visits to long-term care one second longer than it’s required, but right now it’s still required and we still have to do it and it is heartbreaking,” he said. “It is absolutely heartbreaking, but it is also absolutely necessary.”

Seniors homes have undertaken aggressive testing for all respiratory illnesses, added engineered and administrative pandemic controls, increased sterilization measures and limited health care workers to working at a single site.

Mackenzie said visitation in the future likely won’t be the same as it once was — multiple family members and friends traipsing in to seniors homes whenever they wanted.

“But we’ve got to allow adult children to see their moms and dads and spouses to see their husbands and wives,” she said.

“We’ve got to figure out a way because otherwise we’re saying there’s no visits till there’s a vaccine.

“And that’s not acceptable.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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