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Hospital transfer workers are seen outside the Lynn Valley Centre care home in North Vancouver, on April 8, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has updated its guidance on COVID-19 protocols at long-term care facilities to clarify who is allowed to visit during the pandemic.

The updated guidance, released this week, is in response to concerns by members of the public that an earlier order allowing essential visitors only was being interpreted differently by different care staff and facilities.

Some facilities believed this to mean end-of-life visits only, for example, while the new guidance states explicitly that an essential visitor can be someone assisting with personal care, communications or decision-making. Designated representatives for people with disabilities are also allowed, including to provide emotional support.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the revision is intended to give health care providers clear guidance about considerations they need to make when deciding whether a visit is essential.

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“They are significant changes for people that came at the request and concern of people in the disability community, so that they would have the confidence to visit hospitals,” Mr. Dix said this week. “They also, I think, will be helpful with our staff in making those important decisions around essential visits.”

B.C.'s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said her office has received many calls about the issue, especially as the weeks have passed.

“It’s a tricky situation,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear and worry out there, and different people, depending on who is the staff person that you’e dealing with, may have a different interpretation and application of the essential visitor policy.”

Ms. Mackenzie said the updated guidance is particularly important now, months into the pandemic.

“It’s giving some latitude here, because one of the things that has to be recognized is that it may not have been an essential visit during month one of the lockdown, but now that it’s month two, and possibly month three, the mental well-being of the residents is beginning to be adversely affected by the limitations on the visits," she said.

The updated visitor policy will be posted on health authorities’ websites and communicated to visitors upon arrival at long-term care facilities.

Visitors will continue to be screened before entrance. Staff members will be posted at entrances with a checklist of questions, including whether prospective visitors have any signs of illness or history of recent travel. Those who are permitted will have their names recorded and be required to wear a mask for the duration of their visit.

On Monday, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said a limited number of non-essential visits to long-term care facilities may be allowed again next month if transmission rates remain low.

“I know they are working on it and it may look slightly differently in different facilities, depending on how many people there are per room, how large the facility is, and that sort of thing,” she said.

“I’m hopeful that it’ll be sometime maybe in June, as we see our numbers decrease and a lot of it will, of course, depend on our ability to keep control of this virus in our community and our long-term care homes.”

As of Thursday, there were 14 active outbreaks at long-term care facilities in B.C.

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