A long-term care home administrator is welcoming news that residents of many homes will again be able to share hugs, and communal meals after the province reduced COVID-19 restrictions thanks to increased vaccination rates.
“It’s going to start to move us back more to a normal living environment,” said Jill Knowlton of Jarlette Health Services, which operates 14 homes across Ontario, including Meadow Park in London. “We’ve been in really artificial conditions for over a year now. This will start us back to where we can share a meal, engage in more social activities and increase our human contact.”
The new rules mean most homes can safely resume communal dining, indoor events and gatherings. The directive also allows residents and caregivers who are fully immunized to have physical contact, such as hugging or holding hands.
Knowlton says the changes offer a step back toward normalcy after a difficult year for residents in long-term care.
“The human condition is one where we’re not an island, we need human contact,” said Knowlton. “So this is really just a positive move today. We are a home and we need to act and look and behave like a home.”
Restrictions came at a cost
Knowlton said rules that required residents to keep a two-meter distance from staff, while necessary to curb transmission, led to isolation creating other health problems for seniors, both mental and physical.
“Sometimes there can be failure to thrive,” she said. “Just not wanting to eat anymore, and you can see other things. People retreating and perhaps advances in dementia, increase in falls. Those kind of things.”
Tuesday’s move comes after an independent commission examining the spread of COVID-19 in the province’s long-term care homes said the mental health consequences of pandemic restrictions for residents were akin to those faced by prisoners in solitary confinement.
The province said that as of Tuesday, approximately 95 per cent of long-term care residents were fully vaccinated and 85 per cent of staff had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 shot.
The directive does advise some additional precautions if homes don’t meet the threshold of 85 per cent of residents and 70 per of staff being fully immunized.
All residents are currently allowed to leave a nursing home for medical or compassionate absences.
In January, Ontario prioritized vaccinating long-term care, high-risk retirement, and First Nations elder care residents across the province in a bid to protect people most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said eight weeks after the initial immunizations began in the homes that infections, hospitalizations and deaths among long-term care residents and workers were significantly down.
Grim toll in care homes
The province said 3,928 long-term care residents and 10 nursing-home workers have died of COVID-19.
Despite the relaxed restrictions, the province says all staff, visitors and residents in long-term care homes, must continue to practice public health measures including masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and staying at home when they are sick.
Knowlton said it’s important to keep in mind the role vaccinations are playing in allowing life to edge back toward normal.
“This is the success of vaccinations and high vaccination uptake in our long-term care homes,” she said. “That’s the road out of this pandemic.”