Alberta loosens care-home visitor restrictions, despite 'concerning' rise in COVID-19 cases

Despite a "concerning" increase in new COVID-19 cases, Alberta will loosen restrictions next week on visits to continuing-care and nursing homes, the province's top doctor says.

Province reports two more deaths Thursday, and 120 new cases

The hospital is no longer admitting patients due to a full outbreak of COVID-19. As of Thursday morning, a total of 52 cases have been linked to the outbreak. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Despite a "concerning" increase in new COVID-19 cases, Alberta will loosen restrictions next week on visits to continuing-care and nursing homes, the province's top doctor says.

The province reported two more deaths related to the illness on Thursday and 120 new cases, a surge that pushed the provincial total of active cases to 807.

Across the province, 69 people were being treated in hospitals, including eight in ICU beds.

It was the first time since May 2 that the province reported more than 100 new cases.

"The number today certainly is concerning," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday at a news conference. "As you know, we've had cases hovering around the 80 to 90 mark for most of this week, and of course today have gone over 100, so that is definitely concerning."

New cases take time to investigate in order for officials to understand where they were acquired, she said, so the province doesn't have a lot of data yet on the 120 new cases.

Over the last week, a continuing trend is that the province is seeing more new infections among people aged 20 to 29 and 30 to 39, she said.

While new cases a few months ago had on average about six close contacts, recently new cases have 15 to 20 contacts during their infectious period, Hinshaw said.

"So I think this is a reflection of many people feeling that they are tired of the restrictions, they don't want to be held back any more from interacting socially with their friends, from doing the things that they enjoy."

Easing visiting restrictions

Despite the increase in active cases, the province announced on Thursday it will loosen restrictions on visits to nursing homes and continuing care homes.

Starting on July 23, Alberta will shift from restricted-access to a "safe-access approach" for visitors at those facilities.

"This pandemic has been very, very challenging for residents in continuing care facilities," Hinshaw said. "Last month, I heard from thousands of residents, family members and facility operators and staff on the impacts these restrictions have had, and on ways we can safely relax some of them."

The new guidelines for visits, Hinshaw said, will help residents remain socially and emotionally connected while balancing their emotional needs with the need to protect the population that is most at risk of severe outcomes.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, 119 of 165 deaths in Alberta have been residents in long-term care facilities.

"Protecting residents from COVID-19 has required placing severe restrictions on visits, which helped limit and prevent outbreaks but also took a toll on those living inside these facilities," Hinshaw said.

'No risk-free options'

"There are no risk-free options with COVID-19. This virus is still here, and residents in these facilities remain uniquely vulnerable. At the same time, we must also consider the overall health and well-being of those residents and the risks of isolation brought on by strict, universally-applied visitor restrictions.

"These residents need hope, joy and connection, just like all of us."

Under the restricted-access policy, which has been in place for months, residents were allowed to have one designated family or support person spend time with them indoors, and only when their needs couldn't be met by staff. All other visits had to be outdoors.

Under the new policy, each resident will be allowed to designate two support people who will be able to visit indoors, for as long and as often as they want, Hinshaw said.

Depending on a resident's health, outdoor visits will also be allowed with up to four people. In some circumstances, when it is safe, those other visitors may also be allowed to visit indoors, if a facility has a designated indoor visiting space.

'Causing great distress'

"We heard clearly from residents and family that [the previous] restrictions were causing great distress, and in some cases, profound declines in health status in residents who grew depressed, isolated and lonely," Hinshaw said.

A key part of the new visitor policy will require each facility to develop a local visitor policy based on consultations with residents, families and staff, she said.

"While the baseline for the number of visitors allowed will be open somewhat for all facilities, we are also setting out the possibility that some facilities may be less restrictive if their residents collectively agree to accept more risk.

"Under the new approach, we are also explicitly recognizing that family and friends are part of the care team for individuals who live in congregate care facilities, not just social visitors whose time with residents is discretionary."

The regional breakdown of active cases on Thursday was:

  • Calgary zone: 362
  • Edmonton zone: 217
  • South zone: 90
  • Central zone: 75
  • North zone: 55
  • Unknown: eight

Also on Thursday CBC confirmed that an outbreak at the Misericordia Community Hospital in west Edmonton continues to grow, a week after the facility closed its doors to new patients. 

A total of 53 cases have been linked to that outbreak, with 17 new cases identified since July 8.

Seventeen patients are currently being treated in the hospital for the illness. Eight patients who tested positive have since been discharged, Alberta Health Services confirmed in an email to CBC News.

Some of those people were discharged after fully recovering, AHS said. Others were discharged and sent home, where they were asked to self-isolate for 14 days, or 10 days after onset of symptoms.

A total of 19 staff have also tested positive.

The Misericordia outbreak now reaches beyond the walls of the hospital.

According to AHS, two people linked to the outbreak were not patients or staff but "tested positive in the community."

Seven people have died. 

On July 8 — the day the hospital declared a full-facility outbreak and stopped admitting new patients — 15 staff members and 20 patients had tested positive.

Cases have steadily increased since the outbreak was first declared on June 20.

The 312-bed hospital typically has more than 1,100 staff and physicians on weekdays and more than 550 on weekends. 

The hospital remains under what is called a "full-facility outbreak closure," and all services, including the emergency department, have been closed to new patients. 

People who need care are asked to instead visit one of the other hospitals within the Edmonton zone, or call 911 if needed.

Visitors have been restricted to end-of-life situations only.


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