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Public-health officials took over management of four seniors’ homes around B.C., including the Nanaimo Seniors Village, seen here on Dec. 3, 2019.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Doug Paterson is grateful that COVID-19 hasn’t made its way into the Nanaimo, B.C., care home where his husband Mark Hampshire lives.

Last week, a crisis in Ontario and Quebec was laid bare – thousands of seniors in care homes have died in those two provinces from COVID-19. It’s a different story in British Columbia, where early interventions of public-health officials helped mitigate the pandemic’s dangers to residents in long-term care. As of late last week, the lives of 93 seniors have been lost to the pandemic in the province’s care facilities – each one a painful loss, but it could have been far worse.

That relative success in B.C. is fuelling demands from families who now want to ease one particular COVID-19 measure: the ban on visits, which has been in place since March.

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“It is debilitating for him, and frankly for me, too," Mr. Paterson said. He is one of a group of families calling for changes to the restrictions, arguing the sustained ban on visits is harming residents, while the risk of COVID-19 is low. On Friday, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, with almost 800,000 residents, had only one person hospitalized with COVID-19.

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In early 2018, Mr. Paterson found he could not care on his own for his partner, who was bedridden but reluctant to go into a care home. “I promised him I would have dinner with him every night,” Mr. Paterson said. He found a care home just blocks away, and he kept his word, until the COVID-19 restrictions were brought in. “From May 4, 2018 until the 26th of March this year, I spent every single day, the bulk of every day, with him.”

Families normally provide a level of oversight in care homes, detecting problems that health inspections can miss. It was complaints from families about abuse and neglect that resulted last year in an unprecedented action: Public-health officials took over management of four seniors’ homes around B.C., including the Nanaimo Seniors Village where Mr. Hampshire lives.

That’s why Mr. Paterson and others are anxious to check in with relatives who are in care. He says Mr. Hampshire, who is 88, seems to have changed since their in-person visits ended. “I do notice he is slipping mentally, and he wonders why I’m not there.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledges that the restrictions are hard on families – his own included.

“There are health consequences, mortality consequences, to not having families visit their loved ones in long-term care,” he said in an interview. "That’s affected my family, and it’s affected lots of other families, and it’s gutting.”

But he cautioned, the pandemic risk has not gone away. “Every time there’s an outbreak in long-term care, the risk is very high.” Sixty-five of B.C.'s COVID-19 deaths were clustered in just four care homes.

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Mr. Dix accepts that there will be missteps and that he will face questions in the future about today’s decisions. But he is quick to point out that B.C. was better-placed to protect its seniors because the work done to improve care standards began long before COVID-19 arrived in B.C.

When the NDP came to power in the summer of 2017, Mr. Dix was presented with a challenge by the B.C. Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, who had found seniors were receiving inadequate care at many facilities. Mr. Dix approved new spending and increased care standards to help reduce those gaps, without demonizing any of the players.

When Canada’s first death from COVID-19 was recorded at North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Care Centre, the ministry, health authorities, unions and care providers in both the public and private sectors were able to work together and mobilize changes that would benefit residents in care homes around the province. A rapid response team brought in new infection controls, and the government ensured that all care homes were provided with masks and other personal protective equipment, while workers were offered new benefits so that they would not need to work at more than one facility.

The Health Minister said more needs to be done, and an urgent priority is to ensure there are more infection-control experts working in care facilities.

While B.C. has shown good results in reducing the spread of COVID-19 so far, public-health officials worry that a second wave looms ahead. Students are heading back to schools, businesses are reopening, people are starting to travel again. There could be a fresh surge of infections in the fall, and no one will be more vulnerable than seniors in care homes.

Mr. Dix said it is too soon to talk of relaxing vigilance. “We absolutely have to learn the lessons of this, but we’re still right in the middle of it.”

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