COVID-19: Concerns raised over eased restrictions at Alberta continuing care, seniors facilities

WATCH ABOVE: A change in rules has sparked new concerns for the safety of people living in seniors housing in Alberta. As Christa Dao reports, some believe it’s too soon to relax the rules.

With Alberta easing restrictions around continuing care centres and seniors housing, there is concern the relaxed rules will lead to an increase of COVID-19 cases, and hurt the most vulnerable population.

Effective Thursday, continuing care facilities will move to a “risk-based approach” to determine which residents leaving the property will have to quarantine. Previously, everyone who left — whether overnight or for a weekend, no matter their activities — had to self isolate for 14 days.

Now, there is more flexibility for care facilities, and whether the person needs to self-isolate depends on the risk level and the activity the person was involved in.

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Volunteers are also allowed back in under the new regulations.

David MacLeod’s 92-year-old aunt is staying at the Trinity Lodge Retirement Centre in Calgary. He believes the changes come too soon.

“At the end of the day, as much as people want to have social contact and all that stuff at the expensive of getting this virus… for us, the price is too high,” he said.

MacLeod said as schools see more cases of COVID-19, there is an increased risk for both seniors who leave, and volunteers who come in.

“I have some hesitation about that, because I’m looking at since May, the trend is up… So all of these groups that were kind of social distancing and being, you know, held away from one another, are now going to be going back,” he said.

“The people going downtown to work, the kids going back to school, and now the seniors are going to be accessing that pool, and that is just much greater exposure.

“The seniors pay the highest price. I mean, if these people get sick, they tend not to fare as well as as others, so that’s my concern.”

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The president of the Brenda Strafford Foundation (BSF) is also concerned about the eased rules. Mike Conroy believes the province is headed towards a second wave, and believes Alberta should be more vigilant.

“With the increased community prevalence, school opening, etc., which just, again, enhances some risk of transmission in the community,” Conroy said.

“So the risk is actually going up. So it’s a bit confounding to us as to why the order would be more permissive in terms of more people coming onto the site in this increased risk environment.”

BSF oversees five seniors care homes in Calgary and Okotoks, including Cambridge Manor, which recently had a new resident test positive after an asymptomatic test, according to Conroy.

“With relaxed public health measures in terms of the economic opening — which we support, it is necessary — but… now with school opening and with increased visitation opportunities at continuing care, that heightens the risk,” he said.

“We have to be ever vigilant and, again, it’s not unexpected that we’re moving into a second wave. So I think we should be increasing our vigilance, and in some cases, our measures to manage that risk.”

Conroy said he would like to see the province adopt a system of triggers that prompt changes to certain health measures once a threshold is met.

“There should be some triggers as to when, across continuing care, more restrictions would be imposed,” he said.

“Whether that’s 1,000 cases-plus in the community, for example, the number of care centres on outbreak… we should be clear on what are, and then based on that all, move to a different state of readiness.”

Tom McMillan, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, told Global News that “the new, risk-based approach is designed to give more flexibility to operators while still protecting the health and safety of residents.”

“The health and safety of residents is our top priority,” he said in a statement. “The strict restrictions implemented earlier this spring helped limit the spread of the virus, but took a toll on other aspects of their health.

“The updated approach is based on a detailed assessment of the spread of COVID-19, as well as feedback from residents, operators and families.”

McMillan added that in some cases, the new approach is more protective.

“The old framework did not require any precautions to be taken in residents who left the facility for less than 24 hours, independent of the activities they engaged in,” he said. “The new framework also adds precautions for high-risk activities undertaken in that shorter time frame, while realizing that not all overnight visits outside a facility generate the same risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Operators whose residents have concerns can, in consultation with residents, continue to require a 14-day quarantine on all residents who leave, if the consensus of residents is that they do not wish to shift to a risk-based approach. ”

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Not all seniors organizations are against the eased rules. The Alberta Seniors Communities and Housing Association believes this new order allows for flexibility for centres, and provides a mental health benefit for seniors.

“We still have the same screening,” executive director Irene Martin-Lindsay said. “We can allow more people in, based on volunteers, and hopefully some of the life enrichment and wellness supports that are so critical for well-being are what we should be able to implement.

“It’s really allowed the operators the opportunity to manage the risk with the residents and families and come up with the plan for each site, based on the risk tolerance of everybody who lives there. Because it’s their home and they can make that workable for everyone.”

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Martin-Lindsay said one of the biggest barriers for residents during the pandemic was the 14-day mandatory isolation at care centres.

“This made not very many people want to move in — like, nobody wants to move into a lockdown situation,” she said.

“So this will hopefully allow more people to move in and enjoy the socialization and all of the supports that are there that they don’t have at home.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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