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A man takes a walk outside the Seven Oaks Long-Term Care Home in Toronto on June 25, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario is moving ahead with its plan to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates among staff at long-term care homes while easing restrictions that have kept residents locked down in their rooms for months.

Newly appointed Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips said 99 per cent of nursing home residents and 84 per cent of staff are fully vaccinated. He said 92 per cent of staff have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The high vaccination rate will allow the province to begin loosening restrictions beginning on July 7, Phillips said.

Residents will be allowed indoor visits with two general visitors and two caregivers, and they can visit with up to 10 people outdoors. Personal care services will resume in the homes, and there will no longer be a limit on the number of people who can be designated caregivers.

Families have complained about being unable to visit their loved ones in nursing homes where staff have not been vaccinated.

“I think we’re making good progress,” Phillips said Tuesday.

Under a new plan the government announced in May, staff in long-term care homes will have to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status. Those who have not received the vaccine and do not have a medical reason to do so will have to undergo “some education so they understand the importance of vaccination,” Phillips said.

He said he will keep an open mind to new ideas about how to increase vaccination rates among staff and that more will be done should those rates flatline.

Ontario is set to move into Step 2 of its reopening plan on Wednesday, but it has yet to announce a date for the third stage.

“When the province moves to Step 3, we will be lifting the limits on outdoor and indoor gathering numbers so long as public health measures are in place to ensure safety,” Phillips said.

“We’ll be easing restrictions on dining and allowing more social activities like dancing, singing and off-site excursions.”

The announcement on Tuesday was the first by Phillips in his new role. He was previously a finance minister but was forced to resign after going on a Caribbean vacation during a provincial lockdown last December.

Phillips struck a different tone Tuesday than his predecessor, Merrilee Fullerton, who never accepted responsibility for the catastrophe that struck Ontario’s long-term care homes during the pandemic.

“Anyone who has read the long-term care commission report can’t miss the clear conclusion: successive governments, including this one, failed residents, they failed families and they failed our staff,” Phillips said.

“On behalf of both past governments and the current government, I apologize for that.”

Nearly 3,800 residents and 13 staff died from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit last year.

The Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission found in late April the province had no plan to protect residents from the disease due to years of neglect.

The commission also found that chronic underfunding, severe staffing shortages, outdated infrastructure and poor oversight contributed to the devastation wrought by COVID-19.

“There are major changes in the system and it will take time to change that, but we will do that,” Phillips said.

He said the government will bring forward legislative changes this fall as it looks “comprehensively” at rewriting the Long-Term Care Homes Act from 2007.

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