Saskatoon

Plan to visit a care home? Get vaccinated or at least tested, Sask.'s top doctor says

Unvaccinated people who plan to visit loved ones in a care home should get tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis, says Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.

Unvaccinated people who plan to visit residents should get tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis: Dr. Shahab

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, says anyone who is concerned they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should be tested before going into a care home. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer has a message for anyone planning to enter a care home where visits may soon be allowed:

Get vaccinated. And if that's not possible, at the very least get tested for COVID-19.

"It is all of our responsibility to not just protect ourselves, but to protect our loved ones, our family," Dr. Saqib Shahab said.

On Thursday, the Saskatchewan government announced that beginning on April 29, care homes will be able to receive visitors if at least 90 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated, and at least three weeks have elapsed since the second round of vaccines were administered.

Two visitors will be allowed per resident indoors, four outdoors.

"It does not have to be the same two or four consistent visitors," said Everett Hindley, the provincial government minister in charge of issues affecting seniors.

Homes have been tightly locked down since Nov. 19, amidst a second wave of COVID-19 that took a deadly toll on Saskatchewan care home residents, particular those of one privately operated Regina facility.

Future visitors at care homes will be required to follow all public health orders — including wearing masks.

But Thursday's eagerly anticipated policy change did not impose some other thresholds homes must meet in order to qualify for visitors. For example, homes are not required to have any certain percentage of fully vaccinated staff, and there is no requirement that visitors be vaccinated, or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

Over 80 per cent of long-term and personal care home residents have received a second dose of COVID-19, according to the Ministry of Health.

However, the ministry does not specify how many doses it offers, making it difficult to know what proportion of care home residents either declined vaccines or simply could not take them for medical reasons, and therefore remain vulnerable to transmission. 

Meanwhile, only 47 per cent of prioritized health-care workers — a large group that includes care home staff — had received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, according to the ministry. 

(Government of Saskatchewan)

"Many staff members have gotten vaccinated," Shahab said, adding that "many, many people" he knows with loved ones in long-term care have been inoculated, too. 

Shahab said anyone who is concerned they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should be tested before going into a care home. 

"Testing is widely available," he said.

The province has also equipped care homes with rapid COVID-19 test kits, which went unmentioned in Thursday's release about the easing of visitation restrictions

"If you plan to visit your loved ones, get regularly [tested]," Shahab continued. "Especially if you haven't been vaccinated, you have to get tested on a weekly basis." 

He said people who have received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and may be exposed "now and then" should also consider getting tested. 

'Getting back to the people we love'

Shahab did not directly answer when asked if he had recommended the relaxing of care home visitation rules.

"We were looking for any opportunity that we could allow visitation in a safe manner," Shahab said.

"We certainly have looked at evidence from other parts of the world, Canada and the U.S. And certainly the approach we have is a very safe approach, where once we have a high vaccination uptake in a long-term care facility, you can safely start visiting."

Of Saskatchewan's almost 160 long-term care homes, about a quarter — 43 — already qualify for visits, Hindley said. 

"It's one small step in getting back to the people we love," the seniors minister said.

Shahab said that as more and more of a home's regular visitors get vaccinated with two doses, the rules can be further relaxed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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