Sierra Macpherson

The Ontario government updated its safety policies and protocols in long-term care facilities while a commission investigates damning reports about conditions in those same institutions early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw the impacts of wave one on our long-term care homes,” Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s long-term care minister, told reporters recently. “We’ve learned from it and we will continue. . . to do whatever it takes to keep our loved ones in long-term care safe.”

The government announced $761 million for building and renovating almost 11,000 long-term care facilities earlier this week.

The news is shadowed by the near 2,000 deaths in Ontario facilities, accounting for three-quarters of deaths in the province, and leading to harsher restrictions earlier this year.

All non-essential visitors have been restricted since early October from entering homes in areas with high rates of community spread, including Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa.

Resident absences for non-essential reasons have also been prohibited starting Oct. 16. These policies come after the provincial government eased up on restrictions following the first wave.

Many residents have had a difficult time adjusting to these protocols since the start of the pandemic.

Angie D’Souza, a Trillium Health Partners employee who was redeployed as a personal support worker at Camilla Care Community during the first wave, said many of the residents she cared for thought their loved ones did not want to visit them.

“A lot of them had dementia or Alzheimer’s, so they knew that there was something going on,” D’Souza said. “They just didn’t quite understand what it was.”

While the policies are intended to keep residents safe, their loved ones had to adjust to not being able to visit.

Bob Brennan, 87, said he used to visit his wife, Josie, at Sheridan Villa Long-Term Care Centre on Truscott Drive in Mississauga for hours every day before the start of the pandemic.

“It made me feel sort of on edge when they stopped us from visiting because I knew she was getting worse,” Brennan said. “When I could see her each day, hold her hand, talk to her, I felt better because I could just say, ‘see you tomorrow.’

“But then day after day, there was no tomorrow. It got me down for a while,” he said.

Brennan was able to visit his wife again when her condition declined, as family members who are visiting a palliatively ill resident are considered essential visitors.

“The last week of her life, when they knew she was dying, they let us go for one hour a day per family member,” Brennan said.

Josie Brennan died on June 1.

Fullerton also announced up to two friends or family members of each resident could register to become trained essential caregivers in order to visit them and provide support.

These essential caregivers, along with all PSWs and nurses, must be tested twice a month and pass COVID-19 screening on each entry.

“They can come in during an outbreak, they can come in without an outbreak. They need the training and on-and-offing of the protective equipment,” Fullerton said.

The province also allotted more than $500 million to ensure seniors homes have effective protection for staff and residents. The money went toward training and personal protection equipment for staff, high-dose flu vaccines for residents and renovations to increase safety.