Restrictions change for long-term care home visits: Mask rules relaxed, no need to book ahead

It’s been a long time since Brenda Howard has been able to visit her 96-year-old mom at her care home without wearing a mask.

But starting on Monday, families will be allowed to visit loved ones in B.C.’s care homes without strict scheduling and time limits, and with more relaxed mask rules.

“She diminished over lock down of (the) 16 or 17 months that we weren’t allowed inside. She lost almost 35 pounds, she lost her mobility,” said Howard. “The cognitive decline was severe from lack of stimulation.”

This week’s change marks the third time since the start of the pandemic that visiting rules in B.C. have been eased.

“We’re overjoyed to be back inside and we’re overjoyed to be such a big part of her care plan now,” she said. “(The new rules) give us free access to our loved ones which is what these seniors have the right to. We don’t have to make an appointment.”

Greeters will remain at the front doors to check visitors in, and to make sure they are fully vaccinated, and have proof of it. Visitors will have to wear masks while walking through all common areas, but can remove them once in their loved one’s room.

Seniors advocates say the new rules are a step in the right direction, but there are some peculiarities.

“We know some people are still being asked to wear masks even though they’ve been doubly vaccinated and we know that some staff are not,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of Canage, a seniors advocacy organization.

“It’s just really the numbers of people who have been outside and exposed,” said Mike Klassen, Vice President of the BC Care Providers Association.

“The criteria say that if (staff)… have not been vaccinated or not fully vaccinated, then they are going to be required to continue to wear a mask within the care homes and they’re going to have to be rapid tested up to three times a week, assuming that they’re working full time.”

Relaxed rules around visiting hours are also part of the new regulations, but Watts said there isn’t enough clarity about how they will be rolled out across the province.

The previous rules required family members to schedule a visit ahead of time, and a time limit on how long they could stay. The new rules allow for more flexibility – you don’t have to schedule ahead of time and there’s no limit on how long you can stay, but you can only visit while the front-door greeters are there to sign you in.

The greeters had been working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but some care homes say that will be changing to accommodate late afternoon and early evening visits.

“Some (facilities) are talking about going from 11 to seven which provides the time for families to come in, do the screening, and then be able to go into the room and meet with their loved ones.”

Watts said these changes are long overdue and important for the health and well-being of residents, but she is concerned that the visitor restrictions will stay in place longer than necessary due to a lack of staffing ability to accommodate visitors.

"We are perennially short staffed and what we’re concerned about is, will some of these restrictions end up staying as an excuse for not having enough staffing?” said Watts.

Klassen said the plan is for long-term care homes to continue to reopen if COVID case numbers stay low, though front door greeters will likely remain until the end of the year as they’re funded by the province.

When asked about what the rules will be for children under 12, who are not vaccinated, Klassen said they are still working with the Ministry of Health to answer those questions.

“The goal here is to make sure that grandchildren can see their grandparents," he said.

For Howard, her biggest concern is families could be locked out again if there’s an outbreak.

“The caveats in the letters have said that if there’s another case that will shut down visitation. We can’t allow that to happen again,” she told CTV News. “Don’t lock us out again.”

She said when visits were able to resume with her mom, even though there were limits and restrictions, she saw some of her strength come back.

“We’re taking her out (for visits), we’re bringing her to family dinners. She made it to my nephew’s wedding. That was a dream come true,” said Howard. “There’s nothing else to live for if you can’t be with your family. There’s no reason to live.”

CTV News Vancouver contacted the Ministry of Health to ask about concerns over the availability of visitation hours. The ministry responded by referring to comments provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made when announcing the changes.

“The expectation is that every facility will ensure that there are visiting hours that are available in evenings, at different times of the day, weekends, etc.," Henry said. "They will have people there to ensure that people are screened when they arrive. Each site will continue to maintain a sign-in list so that we do know who has been in a facility if and when we do have outbreaks.”