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Brenda Brophy, right, meets with her mother Dot Finnerty in June, 2020, after care home restrictions were eased in British Columbia.Handout

British Columbia has opened the door to visitors at long-term care facilities, ending a ban that was implemented in March to protect elderly people from COVID-19 but that also put residents at risk due to isolation and lack of family support.

The new policy, which requires visitors to book appointments in advance and wear masks, among other precautions, weighs the risks of COVID-19 against unintended negative consequences, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry says.

“These are the things that have caused me the most distress in the last few months – knowing that people who are in long-term care are at that point in their life where many of them have underlying health issues, their quality of life is dependent on having family and loved ones with them,” Dr. Henry said Tuesday at a regular briefing.

“But we know that once this virus gets into those settings, that the distress and anguish and fear that it causes – both for the residents, but their families as well and the care providers – is immense,” she added.

Just more than 80 per cent of Canada’s known COVID-19 deaths were among residents of nursing or retirement homes as of May 25, nearly double the average for countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to a recent report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

B.C. has had multiple outbreaks in long-term care facilities, although it managed to curb them relatively quickly through measures including visitor restrictions and an order that long-term care employees work at only one facility.

Health Ministry data show that of the 174 COVID-19 deaths in B.C., 122 were elderly people in long-term care, assisted-living facilities or hospitals. A COVID-19 outbreak at North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Care Centre resulted in the deaths of 20 residents.

Brenda Brophy, a Victoria resident who has been calling on the government to open long-term care facilities to visitors, said she planned to book a visit to see her mother as soon as possible.

Since visitor restrictions took effect in March, Ms. Brophy has seen her mother, who turned 100 in April, in person only once, in early June, when the facility where her mother lives said it would lift visiting restrictions. But it changed course a day later, citing advice from health authorities.

“For some people, three months may not seem a very long time, but when you’re elderly and you have dementia, it can seem like forever,” Ms. Brophy said.

In announcing the updated visitor policies, B.C. also said it would provide more than $160-million for facilities to hire up to three full-time equivalent staff in each of B.C.‘s 680 long-term care homes and seniors’ assisted-living residences, including both public and private facilities.

The additional staff are expected to schedule visits and help with infection control by, for example, checking to ensure visitors are not sick when they arrive.

Meanwhile, Alberta is weeks away from rolling out new rules for visiting long-term care facilities, according to its Chief Medical Officer.

Deena Hinshaw on Tuesday said her team is reviewing feedback from thousands of citizens on the province’s approach to long-term care restrictions. Her office is trying to balance protecting vulnerable seniors from COVID-19 with the “devastating” effects of isolation created by the tight rules, she said.

Alberta intends to update its long-term care visitor policy within the “next several weeks,” she said. Different settings will require different approaches, Dr. Hinshaw said, adding the next change is unlikely to be final.

“We are hoping to be able to create a framework that does bring better balance to those needs for social connection and connection with loved ones, as well as protection from infection with COVID.”

Alberta, however, has eased visitor restrictions at some health care operations, and a number of services, such as barbers and support groups, will be allowed to resume at Alberta Health Services (AHS) facilities later this week.

Starting Thursday, AHS will permit some patients at acute-care facilities such as hospitals to visit people outdoors, so long as they remain on the property. AHS will also grant unaccompanied outdoor access to some patients at certain facilities, and issue day, overnight or weekend passes for patients in select programs.

In B.C., the relaxed visitor restrictions do not apply to people in acute hospital care, although Dr. Henry said authorities are looking at options for people who are in acute care for longer periods of time.

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