VICTORIA — Four months after COVID-19 surfaced in British Columbia's long-term care homes, residents are finally allowed to see a loved one, health authorities announced Tuesday.
Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.'s advocate for seniors, said people were in tears after hearing government health restrictions will be eased to permit one designated person to see a long-term care resident after being limited to virtual meetings or phone calls since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We've all sacrificed, but the sacrifices by seniors in long-term care and their loved ones for four months has been one of the more onerous burdens to bear," she said. "It's a first step and I think and hope in the next month the number of visits will be expanded beyond just one person."
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the one-person designation could be expanded for more visitors in the future, but she wanted to start slowly.
"We will be monitoring this on an ongoing basis to ensure that we can expand access as soon as is safe to do so," Henry said at a news conference. "Like many businesses that have reopened those facilities will need to have plans and precautions in place."
Provincial long-term care homes were restricted to essential visitors only since March in an effort to protect residents and prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Henry said the facilities now must have written safety plans before allowing visitors.
It could take up to 10 days for a facility to be ready to accept people, but Henry said care homes have already been planning for visitors.
Designated visitors must bring their own masks to wear and will be screened for signs of illness before entering the facility, she said. Visitors must book in advance and facilities where there are active COVID-19 outbreaks will remain closed, she said.
Henry said she is immensely aware of the impacts the restrictions have had on residents and family members, but those days are coming to an end now that the COVID-19 risk has been lowered in B.C.
"We had to move quickly and decisively to protect our most vulnerable citizens," she said. "Every day this weighs heavily on us. There have been many dark and anxious days, but today is a brighter day for us all."
Henry paid tribute to the resilience and courage shown by residents and their families over the past months, saying "this has been a difficult time for you to be separated from the ones you love."
Health Ministry data shows of the 174 COVID-19 deaths in B.C., 122 were elderly people in long-term care, assisted living facilities or hospitals.
The province reported 12 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, increasing the provincial total to 2,916. There were no reported deaths. The government said 2,590 people have recovered from the virus.
Mackenzie, who had been calling for earlier visitor-access at long-term care facilities, said four months without seeing husbands, wives, grandmothers and grandfathers was too long and many people were suffering from loneliness and their health was in danger of deteriorating.
"It's not a risk-free decision," said Mackenzie, acknowledging that once COVID-19 appears in a care facility the results could be "devastating."
"There was a lot of balancing and that took time for people to work through," she said. "At some point the risk of no visits started to outweigh the risk from COVID-19."
A COVID-19 outbreak at North Vancouver's Lynn Valley Care Centre resulted in the deaths of 20 residents.
Part of the early spread of COVID-19 in B.C.'s care homes was linked to employees working in multiple facilities and the provincial government has since enacted a single-site policy ensuring workers stay at one facility.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2020.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press