Alberta’s continuing care homes are preparing for a further easing of restrictions as the province lifts public health orders related to COVID-19 for the sector at the end of the June.
And while the overarching orders — put in place by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health — will be rescinded, several key rules including mask and isolation requirements are still mandated through Alberta Health Services policies.
“I think it’s a balance of trepidation but also everybody’s just tired of all the standards and guidelines that we’ve had to follow,” said Carolyne Mondoux, executive director of Wentworth Manor, one of a number of Calgary facilities run by The Brenda Strafford Foundation.
“And we’re looking forward to easing out and just going back and normalizing our processes.”
The biggest change, according to Mondoux, is the removal of the health screening requirement, which means facilities won’t have to check everyone at the door for red flags such as symptoms, recent travel or close contacts with COVID-19.
“That [will be] completely removed and that means that anybody who’s visiting — visitors, family, friends— or our staff, employees are affected. That means they can now come into the site as they did before,” she said, noting care homes will be relying on visitors to follow the provincial recommendation that they continue to remain home when they’re symptomatic.
“COVID is still not over. People can still be sick. So there’s a little bit of a self-reporting honesty system where we want to make sure people aren’t coming in while they’re sick and that’s up to them but we won’t be asking them how they’re feeling anymore.”
Masking, isolation remain in place
The public health orders set to be rescinded, also include masking and isolation requirements.
While they’re lifted at the provincial level, AHS has its own masking rules for visitors and staff as well as isolation requirements for residents and staff who are symptomatic or test positive.
They remain in place for all AHS facilities and those contracted by the health authority.
“That’s what give us some reassurance that we will be able to continue to keep the safety of our residents top of mind,” said Wayne Morishita, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, adding residents and workers will continue to be prioritized for PCR testing as well.
He said the majority of the association’s members, including long-term care and designated supportive living operators, are subject to these directives because they’re AHS-contracted providers.
Privately run facilities are not subject to the rules.
Other changes coming
Cleaning standards return to pre-pandemic levels, unless there’s an outbreak, Morishita said, and unvaccinated staff will be allowed to work in more than one site again, something he said is key as staffing shortages continue.
Other changes, he noted, mean residents are no longer required to wear masks after visits outside of the care home and they’re no longer required to quarantine when they return from another healthcare facility.
“Just where the pandemic is right now they have selectively lifted some of these restrictions while maintaining a lot of the important ones,” Morishita said.
The number of active COVID cases in continuing care homes has dropped dramatically in recent weeks, he said, from over 2,000 at the end of April to 348 in early June.
Meanwhile, AHS said it will continue to monitor a number of key COVID indicators, including wastewater data, as it assesses what restrictions should remain in place in the future.
“We will also continue to work with government to define the level of pandemic response required in our facilities and will adjust masking guidance based on this, and ongoing data tracking,” spokesperson James Wood said in an email to CBC News.
The health authority said care home operators have the flexibility to add in additional measures at their sites as needed, with input from residents and families.
When Health Minister Jason Copping announced plans to lift the public health orders last week, he called on Albertans to follow the rules that remain in place.
“Protective policies will remain in place through operating standards at continuing care facilities, recognizing the risk from COVID is not going to go away. These practices will help safeguard vulnerable residents from COVID-19 transmission in their residences,” he said.