Families, operators pleased as continuing care homes allowed to open doors

Alberta's two-step plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions for continuing care homes is being welcomed by families and care home operators.

Just 6 active COVID-19 cases in continuing care facilities provincewide as of Tuesday

Wolfgang and Margarete Sondermann live in supportive care. The Alberta government is lifting many of the COVID-19 restrictions for such facilities. (Submitted by Michael Somdermann)

Alberta's plan to lift most COVID-19 restrictions for continuing care homes is being welcomed by families and care home operators.

Both of Michael Sondermann's parents live in supportive care. He says it's a big relief to have a return of "normalcy" after not seeing his parents face to face in nearly a year and half. 

"It's been tough.…There was this long period of really worrying about their health and their safety, and then when the vaccines came in there was still concern," he told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. 

"Then there were so many hoops to jump though for everybody and visiting became difficult for a number of reasons. It's nice to return back to something more normal."

Health minister Tyler Shandro announced a two-step plan for easing of restrictions on Tuesday.

The first phase includes lifting the limit on visitors for residents of licensed supportive living facilities, long-term care homes and hospices. Limits on indoor dining and recreation activities are also eliminated.

Facility operators have until July 31 to fully implement the initial step.

Sondermann said the restrictions have  been challenging for his parents, Margarete and Wolfgang.

"I think it's been difficult for them emotionally as well. Not seeing any of us for for long periods of time was really difficult for them as it would be for for anybody that was in care."

Care home operator pleased but cautious

The changes come two weeks after Alberta moved to Phase 3 of the government's reopening plan, lifting virtually all other public health restrictions.

"Residents in continuing care have borne the brunt in terms of the restrictions and access to loved ones. So we're very supportive of it," said Mike Conroy, president and CEO of the Brenda Strafford Foundation, which runs five care homes in the Calgary area.

 "[They're] likely the most protected people within the province with second dose vaccination rates ... at our sites, at least, between 95 and 100 per cent [for residents], and staff around 90 per cent  So we firmly believe they should enjoy the same privileges and freedoms that the rest of the population has now."

Meanwhile, Donna Wilson, a University of Alberta nursing professor who studies end-of-life care, has mixed feelings about the plan.

"[It's] fabulous that the doors have finally opened up. Wondering why it took so long," she said.

Visits with friends and family are a lifeline for residents of care homes and hospices, according to Wilson, who believes limits on fully vaccinated visitors should have been lifted months ago.

And she said immunization status should be factored into the phased reopening as well. 

"If we throw open the doors to people who have not been vaccinated, we could look at some outbreaks in nursing homes and hospices and these assisted living facilities. So there's some risk there," she cautioned.

Conroy, who has advocated for a requirement that visitors be fully immunized, has a similar worry.

"We do have a bit of a concern with the vaccination status of some visitors — those that are not vaccinated — but the order provides for that, so we will comply," he said.

The province said the plan was developed with input from continuing care home operators, Alberta Health Services and over 2,000 Albertans.

Care homes will still be required to screen visitors for symptoms and any known COVID-19 exposure, and visitors will be required to wear masks in all common areas until at least Phase 2 of the plan.

The province is also "strongly recommending" that visitors who have not yet been fully vaccinated, including children under age 12, always wear a mask in all areas of the building.

Alberta Health says no date has been set for Phase 2 of lifting restrictions for continuing care facilities.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.