B.C. relaxing most rules for long-term care visitation as of July 19

B.C. health officials have announced significant changes to visitation rules for long-term care and assisted-living facilities, which will take effect later this month.

Beginning on July 19, visitors to such facilities will no longer need to schedule visits with their loved ones in advance.

As of that date, limits to the number of visitors per resident will be removed, and fully immunized visitors can visit without a mask.

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the changes in a live news conference Thursday afternoon.

"This has been a long time coming," Dix said during the announcement.

Henry described Thursday as "an important day" for care home residents and their families in B.C.

Leslie Nerheim’s mom lives in long-term care in Chilliwack. Nerheim said she's relieved to see the changes.

“I am very happy,” she said. “It’s a long time coming. I can’t wait to be in my mom’s room without a mask.”

She explained that it’s important for her mom to see that her family is smiling when they visit. 

Some restrictions will still remain in place after July 19, particularly for those who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Visitors will still be screened for symptoms of COVID-19, and they'll be asked to provide proof of their vaccination status.

Those who aren't fully vaccinated or refuse to provide proof of vaccination will be required to wear medical masks for the duration of their visits.

For fully vaccinated visitors, masks will be required while moving through common areas of the facility they're visiting.

“I like that there will be checks in place to make sure everyone will be OK,” said Nerheim of the measures that will remain in place to protect seniors in care.

Visitation will continue to be restricted when a facility is experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. As of Thursday, Dix said, there were no active outbreaks in long-term care or assisted-living homes in B.C., but there have been dozens since February, when the province announced that 91 per cent of care home residents had received at least a first dose of vaccine.

GROUP ACTIVITIES, DAY PROGRAMS RESUMING

Dix and Henry also announced the resumption of group activities and adult day programs at care homes, though some rules still apply to both types of events.

Group activities can be held indoors with residents and staff members from multiple units or floors within the same facility. If they are held outdoors, such events can include visitors, as well.

For adult day programs, participants must provide proof of vaccination, though medical health officers in each health authority can approve exceptions for unvaccinated people. Approved unvaccinated program participants will be required to wear masks and maintain physical distance during the programs.

Henry and Dix said adult day programs that were typically held at long-term care and assisted-living facilities before the pandemic may need a transitional period before fully resuming. They said health authorities will work to fully resume all adult day programs by September.

STAFF VACCINATION REQUIREMENTS

During Thursday's announcement, Henry and Dix also discussed the issue of COVID-19 vaccination for care home staff.

While the province will not be requiring staff members to get vaccinated, Henry said she planned to issue a public health order requiring facilities to provide names and personal health numbers for all care home staff members, residents and volunteers.

The provincial health officer said the information would be used to determine site-by-site vaccination rates.

"This will allow us to focus immunization efforts, to support facilities where immunization rates are not as high as they need to be, and to ensure we understand outbreak risks and can work with facilities to take preventive measures," Henry said.

Having adequate information on staff vaccination rates will also allow the province to address staffing challenges by allowing fully vaccinated workers to resume working in multiple facilities. The Ministry of Health plans to work with unions, facility operators and health authorities to create "pools" of such workers that can move between sites and cover staff shortages, Henry said.

Care home staff members who choose not to get vaccinated will continue to be subject to infection prevention and control practices, including mandatory masks and physical distancing, according to Henry and Dix.

Such workers will also be subject to COVID-19 rapid testing three times per week, the health officials said.