Testing, visitor vaccination rules among new policies for Ontario long-term care


Published December 14, 2021 at 1:36 pm

TORONTO — Ontario is ramping up COVID-19 testing in long-term care homes and tightening restrictions on visitors and resident activities in an attempt to guard against the Omicron variant. 

Only fully vaccinated people will be permitted to visit indoors and will need to provide proof of a negative test from within the last day. Group activities for residents will be discouraged, with cohorts introduced for some activities and dining. 

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the indefinite measures are a response to rising community COVID-19 infections and the “emerging threat” of the Omicron variant, believed to be highly infectious and on track to become dominant in Ontario soon. 

“We need to immediately implement some measures to make sure we’re protecting the most vulnerable,” Phillips said in an interview Tuesday. He said the restrictions will eventually be lifted, but they will remain as long as deemed necessary to protect people. 

“We don’t like to put further restrictions in place but they’re necessary right now.”

Ontario long-term care homes were hit hard by outbreaks, infections and deaths during the pandemic. More than 4,000 residents have died from the disease — more than a third of the province’s total recorded deaths — and more than 15,600 have been infected. 

The situation has improved since vaccinations began late last year, and restrictions were loosened as a result, but Tuesday’s announcement marked a reintroduction of virus surveillance and infection control policies in light of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which is still being assessed by scientists and health officials.

Surveillance virus testing had been dropped for fully vaccinated long-term care workers — which as of this Monday included all staff since a vaccination mandate for workers and volunteers took effect. But the testing will pick up again starting Dec. 17, when all staff, students, volunteers and caregivers will need to be tested two times per week. 

Unvaccinated people can still visit outdoors with masks and social distancing. 

General visitors who aren’t fully vaccinated won’t be allowed to enter long-term care homes, with exceptions for palliative visits and medical reasons. 

Caregivers need to receive their first vaccine dose by Dec. 20 and must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 21. During the grace period, unvaccinated or partially vaccinated caregivers will be limited to resident rooms. Essential caregivers have been eligible for vaccination for about a year, but Phillips said there are about 2,000 unvaccinated caregivers in the province.

The number of visitors will be limited to two people per resident at a time for indoor visits and up to four people for outdoor visits. Residents can have a maximum of two essential caregivers and any new caregiver must be fully vaccinated. 

Social absences, which had previously been unlimited, will now only be allowed for vaccinated residents and overnight social absences aren’t permitted. 

Any new residents admitted or transferred to a home will need to be screened twice a day for symptoms.

Infection prevention and control audits will need to happen every two weeks to ensure homes are keeping up with the changes. 

Phillips said the ministry is working with homes on contingency plans for staffing in case many people have to isolate, and said the top priority is making sure everyone is vaccinated.

A spokeswoman for Phillips said 99 per cent of staff, students and volunteers in long-term care were fully vaccinated as of Nov. 30, the latest data available. All homes that had reported data said at least 90 per cent of workers were fully vaccinated.

Booster vaccinations for residents began this fall and were offered to long-term care staff starting last month. 

Phillips said just over 30 per cent of eligible workers — meaning enough time has passed since their second dose to receive a third — had taken booster shots as of Monday. He said the ministry is working with operators and labour groups increase that number. 

“That’s a priority to keep working on that,” he said.  

Phillips did not rule out mandating booster shots, but said it would depend on advice from experts and the province’s top doctor.

“We’d make the decision at that time,” he said. “We’re going to do what the best medical advice and the best scientific advice says.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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