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Each seniors' home resident should have an essential visitor, advocates say

The province should mandate that every resident in long-term care have at least one essential visitor, say seniors’ advocates, care-home providers and families, after visiting restrictions returned over the weekend amid surging COVID cases.

The province has limited visits to long-term care homes beginning Jan. 1 to one essential visitor per resident. The move was introduced with a number of other restrictions, including closing of gyms and bars and a one-week delay in the reopening of public and private schools after the Christmas break.

The province recorded 9,332 new COVID‑19 cases over the weekend, including 1,117 in the Island Health region.

Shannon Oaks independent living facility in Oak Bay confirmed Monday that three of its residents had tested positive for COVID-19.

But B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie said previous lockdowns showed only a minority of residents have designated essential visitors. Denying residents a dedicated visitor, especially at a time when homes are understaffed, doesn’t make sense, she said. “I have a hard time understanding the risk,” said Mackenzie.

Essential visitors, who must already be fully vaccinated, can be required to show proof of a booster vaccine and can take a rapid test before visiting, she said. “We’ve gone back to allowing essential visitors — only without addressing the right of every resident to have at least one if not two essential visitors.”

Visitor restrictions in long-term care homes that began in March 2020 and lasted a year caused hardship for many residents and their families — some residents in a survey by the Office of the Seniors’ Advocate said they would have preferred COVID-19 to the isolation they experienced.

The restrictions were driven by mounting death counts in seniors’ homes during the first wave of the pandemic, prior to the creation of a vaccine. Over time, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry clarified that every resident should be allowed one essential visitor, but the approval was left to management of individual care homes. Some families fought to gain status, while others gave up.

Mackenzie said while restricting the number of people visiting care facilities as cases soar is reasonable, returning to a situation where only about 20 per cent of residents had essential visitors and care homes were left to their own devices to determine whether a resident met the criteria makes no sense. “My argument is that every resident is entitled to an essential visitor — full stop.”

Jeanette Harper, who visited her mother Marguerite Bell, 90, at Eden Gardens in Nanaimo on Monday, said she was disappointed by the restrictions. “Most of us have had to jump through a lot of hoops to become an essential visitor,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Harper doesn’t believe the restrictions will be lifted Jan. 18, when Henry said she’ll re-evaluate many of the limits now in place. “So we’re imploring Health Minister Adrian Dix and Bonnie Henry to please mandate that every resident be given at least one essential visitor. “There is no substitute for the loving touch of a family member or loved one going to see someone in long-term care — be it a window visit or Facetime,” she said. “It’s really sad that it’s happening again.

“Didn’t we learn anything a year ago?”

B.C. Care Providers Association president Terry Lake, a former health minister, said Monday he was frustrated with what he called a lack of consultation about the restrictions announced Friday.

Care homes were preparing to receive and start administering rapid tests for all visitors Friday when Lake said he got a phone call from the Health Ministry “literally as Dr. Henry was making her announcement.”

“Operators in care homes feel like they are in a game of whack-a-mole,” said Lake. “The lack of communication is a real concern.”

The restrictions are another blow to long-term care residents “who have borne the brunt of this pandemic,” said Lake.

“If you’ve got dementia or Alzheimer’s, you don’t understand why your family’s not coming to visit you anymore,” said Lake. The essential-visitor designation also puts care-home administration in the difficult position of deciding which residents and families meet the criteria and which don’t, he said.

“We’d like to see the provincial health officer or the ministry designate that everyone is allowed to have a least one essential visitor —in Ontario, they are allowed to have two essential visitors and that is something that we could have done here easily.”

Visitors — spouses or adult children — are often not the ones bringing COVID into care homes, he said. “The last thing they want to do is cause an outbreak in their loved one’s home.”

All health-care workers, including those in care homes, are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, Lake has long advocated for rapid testing of staff before every shift, or at least three or four times a week.

The province has said it’s awaiting arrival of new rapid tests, packaged for individual use, from Ottawa.

“But instead the easy thing to do seems to be to cut off visitation,” said Lake. “I think it’s maybe simple to do — but it’s cruel.”

Both Lake and Mackenzie say most essential visitors make life easier for staff and substantially improve the quality of life of residents, whether they are feeding or bathing them or holding their hand.

“By and large, I would say that the operators appreciate those family members that come in and can help with feeding, can help with dressing, because right now, our staff is at the very bare minimum, below minimum, and so to take away those family supports, it makes it difficult for some homes to provide the care they really should be,” Lake said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com