Ontario Announces Changes for Long-Term Care, and the Creation of Social Circles

The Government of Ontario has announced a lot of changes lately, but the latest changes involve where COVID-19 has hurt the most, long-term care homes. The medical officer of health for Ontario has given the greenlight for people to be able to visit their family members in long-term care again, but under some very strict guidelines.

Starting this coming Thursday, residents in long-term care, retirement homes, and residential care settings will be able to receive visitors once more. Among the guidelines is that each visitor must pass an active screening every time they visit, they have to confirm with staff that they’ve tested negative of COVID-19 within the two weeks previous to the visit, and that have to comply with infection control protocols including wearing a face mask.

The homes themselves also have some protocols to follow. To allow visitors, homes cannot have an outbreak, they must maintain the highest possible infection control standards, and have established communications and safety protocols. The Province notes that visitor admissions might vary from home to home depending on their circumstances.

“We know the visitor restrictions have been tough on residents, as families and loved ones play an important role in providing care and emotional support to residents. We are confident these visits can occur safely,” said Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton in a statement. “With the possible spread of COVID-19 in our long-term care homes still being a real threat, people will need to follow strict health and safety protocols in order to protect our most vulnerable.”

In terms of fixing some of the systemic problems with long-term care, the Government of Ontario has announced the appointment a new patient ombudsman, a position that has remained vacant since the current Health Minister, Christine Elliott, left the role in winter 2018 when she returned to politics.

The new ombudsman is Cathy Fook, who was President and CEO of The Change Foundation since 2007 and was previously the first Executive Director of the Health Council of Canada. According to the Government’s statement, part of Fook’s duties will be overseeing an investigation into the care and healthcare experiences of long-term care residents during the pandemic. This will be complementary to, but not a part of, the Government’s independent commission into the long-term care system starting next month.

“Cathy Fooks brings over thirty years of experience advocating for change to improve the care Ontarians receive,” said Elliott in a statement. “Having served as Ontario’s first Patient Ombudsman, I know how this role can directly help people by shining a spotlight on how we can improve the quality of care for all Ontarians. I am confident Ms. Fooks will be a great partner by making sure all voices are heard and concerns are brought to our attention.”

The Government of Ontario is also reserving the right to end visits if a long-term care home in question sees another outbreak of COVID-19, and/or if a second wave of the pandemic hits Ontario. For the guidelines for re-opening long-term care homes, click here.

Speaking of re-uniting, the Province is also making it possible for people to more easily hang out with people outside their homes again. Dr. David Williams, the aforementioned medical officer, is allowing for people to create “social circles” of up to 10 people who can interact with one and other without having to maintain social distancing.

“Not only will social circles help to improve people’s mental health and reduce social isolation, they will support rapid case and contact tracing by limiting the number of close contacts, in the event of a case of COVID-19 in that circle,” said Dr. Williams in a statement.

In addition to the social circles, the Government of Ontario is also easing restrictions on weddings and funerals. Indoor ceremonies will be allowed to have 30 per cent capacity, which aligns with the Province’s recent order to allow the re-opening of religious establishments, while outdoor festivities will be allowed to have up to 50 attendees.

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