COVID-19 in B.C.: Dr. Bonnie Henry and health minister announce visits to long-term care facilities can resume

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      While the past few months have been filled with stressful, troubling, and tragic news, today’s B.C. COVID-19 update brought a lot of good news and hope.

      There aren’t any new health-care or community outbreaks, and also once again there aren’t any new deaths for the fourth consecutive day.

      Most of all, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the news that numerous people have been waiting for: visits will begin again at long-term care and assisted-living facilities.

      Meanwhile today (June 30), Dr. Henry is also taking over Hollywood star Olivia Munn's Instagram account as part of the Pass the Mic initiative in which celebrities hand their social-media accounts over to health experts to allow them to discuss COVID-19.">" target="_blank">

      Daily update: June 30

      Today, Dix and Dr. Henry issued a joint statement for the daily B.C. COVID-19 update.

      They confirmed that there are 12 new cases, raising the cumulative total of 2,916 cases over the course of the pandemic. So far, there have been 981 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health, 1,538 in Fraser Health, 131 in Island Health, 201 in Interior Health, and 65 in Northern Health.

      There are 152 active cases of COVID-19 in the province (18 people are in hospital and four of those patients are in intensive-care units).

      A total of 2,590 people who tested positive have now recovered.

      Thankfully, there haven’t been any new deaths announced; the total remains at 174 fatalities.

      In addition, there aren’t any new health-care outbreaks. With the outbreak at Abbotsford’s Valhaven Home over, there are active outbreaks remaining in four long-term care facilities and one acute-care facility.

      Also, there aren’t any new community outbreaks, and only one community outbreak remains active.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix (with Dr. Bonnie Henry)
      Province of British Columbia

      Long-term care facility visits

      Dix explained that in March, visits to long-term care facilities were limited to essential visits because of the high vulnerability of residents in those facilities to COVID-19 and the need to limit possible infection.

      However, he acknowledged that the decision had “consequences on all sides”, as there is an “extraordinary importance of visits to the life of people in long-term care” and what they mean to families, friends, and residents.

      Dix said that British Columbians have lost almost 100 people from long-term care facilities and a small number from assisted-living.

      “This for me—and I know for all of you—regardless of how people do in other places, is too many and has a real consequence,” he said.

      Dr. Henry said that the deaths of residents in these facilities “weighs heavily on us” every day.

      “These are the things that have caused me the most distress in the last few months, knowing that people who are in longterm care are at that point in their life where many of them have underlying health issues, their quality of life is dependent on having family and loved ones with them,” she said, “but we know that once this virus gets into those settings, the distress and anguish and fear that it causes both the residents but their families as well and the care providers is immense.”

      However, she said that now that the province continues to have a low number of new cases.

      With access to personal protective equipment and resources in place, we have reached the point where visits to these facilities can slowly start again.

      “We’re at the balance now where the fact that the negative consequences of not having your family, not having your loved one, is starting to outweigh the risks,” Dr. Henry said, “but it is a very fine balance.”

      While the number of new cases remains low, she emphasized that it is not yet at zero.

      She admitted she is anxious but hopeful that despite the challenges involved it will be a positive experience for everyone.

      Dix explained that the reason things will begin slowly is that it will be difficult for everyone involved.

      “This process of people coming together and visiting is going to be itself a very moving and emotional process,” he said. “It will have been, for many people, three-and-a-half months since they’ve seen someone they love, maybe someone they saw every day prior to that, and of course people will change over that time and it’s challenging in every possible way.”

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix
      Province of British Columbia

      When visits begin, each resident will be allowed a single designated visitor to be met in a designated visiting area in each facility. Dr. Henry said that visiting areas, depending on the facility, may be indoor or outdoor spaces, and may include single rooms.

      She said there will be provincewide requirements for plans and precautions at facilities that will include the following:

      1. visits will resume once a safety plan is in place, which includes designated staff to screen all visitors and provide guidance for safety;
      2. all visitors must bring and wear their own mask;
      3. visits must be booked in advance and will be spaced out at intervals throughout the day;
      4. visits will be suspended at facilities with an outbreak (five are currently active) to protect residents, staff, and visitors.

      Dr. Henry said visits won’t be supervised, but staff will provide assistance. She said the province hasn't stipulated any time limits or number of visits, as capacity and ability will vary among facilities.

      As people in assisted living direct their own care, Dr. Henry said they will have more freedom to have visits outside facilities while following public-health precautions. She also encouraged these residents to limit social interactions as much as possible.

      Meanwhile, she also encouraged long-term care residents to limit outings to essential activities, such as medical visits.

      Personal service providers, including hairdressers and barbers, will be allowed to enter facilities after they complete a safety plan provided to facilities. These providers must also maintain a record of all contacts in case of an outbreak.

      Guidelines will be posted on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website.

      Dr. Henry said that the process will be monitored, and if there is progress, they will expand access and activities when possible.

      Anyone who is not feeling well is asked to reschedule and should not visit, Dr. Henry stated.

      She said that these new allowances do not include visits to patients in acute-care units in hospitals, who, she added, are often in these facilities for shorter periods. Nonetheless, she said, they will be taking a look at how to support individuals who may have to be in these units for longer periods.

      Dix said that the B.C. government will provide over $160 million for facilities to hire up to three full-time equivalent staff in the province’s 680 long-term care facilities and assisted-living residences (both private and public).

      He said there may be up to 2,040 hired staff dedicated to ensuring that infection prevention and control measures are followed for safe visiting.

      The provincial government will also provide $26.5 million to cover costs that facilities incurred between March 31 and June 20, including additional screening, sick time, self isolation, changes to services, housekeeping and cleaning, and infection prevention and control.

      Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      Mandatory masks

      Several North American jurisdictions are making masks mandatory in indoor spaces, including Toronto, Guelph, and the Peel Region in Ontario, Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona, North Carolina, Harris County in Texas, and Savannah, Georgia. Meanwhile, several others, such as Ottawa, are considering doing so as well.

      When asked if B.C. would follow suit, Dr. Henry explained that the need to mandate masks depends on virus transmission levels.

      “I do not believe we’re at the point where we need to mandate it, and I don’t believe we have been there,” she said. “That said, I do wear a mask myself and I encourage and recommend, strongly, that others do as well when you’re in those situations, particularly indoor situations, where you can’t reliably maintain your distance from others.”

      She said that people should be wearing one when on transit, on airplanes, visiting care facilities, and in indoor places like grocery stores.

      While she explained that there isn’t any benefit in wearing a mask when you're by yourself or outside, she added that everyone should have one with them at all times.

      She said that although masks are an important additional layer of protection, they don’t replace other health measures, including physical distancing or handwashing.

      The reason Dr. Henry has been reluctant to mandate mask-wearing is that, as she has previously explained, wearing a mask may not be an option for those with health issues, people with disabilities, and children. She pointed out that those who cannot wear a mask should consider using transit or visiting public places during off-peak times. 

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook