Advocates and those who lost loved ones amid personal care home outbreaks say Manitoba's plan to drop a number of pandemic health protections next week will put vulnerable seniors at risk.
Next Tuesday, it will no longer be mandatory to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, one of several restrictions expiring this month.
"That's heartbreaking for somebody like me," said Eddie Calisto-Tavares.
Her father, Manuel Calisto, 88, was one of 56 Maples Long Term Care Home residents who died in 2020 after one of the deadliest Manitoba long-term care outbreaks of the pandemic.
"Our governments and our public health leaders who are supposed to be looking after the best interests of [public] health based on science, not on politics, are little by little dismantling the safeguards that exist so that we can keep protecting the most vulnerable in our society," said Calisto-Tavares.
On March 15, mask mandates will no longer be in effect in most places in the province. The latest information out last month from Shared Health suggests masks remain mandatory in long-term care facilities, as do screening protocols.
As of early March, Manitoba no longer requires health-care workers, including those working in long-term care, to be vaccinated or submit to routine testing if unvaccinated.
Care homes have the freedom to continue to impose vaccine requirements, though not all have.
The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre dropped its proof of vaccination requirement in guests and workers when the province lifted that mandate this month, though not without trepidation.
"It certainly makes us nervous," said Laurie Cerqueti, CEO of the Winnipeg care home.
"You hope you're doing the right thing, you hope the government is giving the right direction and advice."
Cerqueti said the facility will continue to mandate masks whether or not the province decides to lift that mandate.
She thinks there have been a lot of restrictions loosened in a short period, and lifting isolation requirements is making an uncertain transition scarier.
"I think it's absolutely baffling why we would be putting that in place now," she said. "We're nervous. We're scared…. Does that mean that staff will be able to come into work sick? Does it mean if a resident gets sick that they won't have to isolate in their room? Does it mean family members can still visit?"
Laura Tamblyn-Watts, the CEO of the national seniors' advocacy group CanAge, said having visitors to personal care homes is "critically important" after two years of isolation.
"But getting rid of essentially basic public health standards that keep COVID at bay seems premature," said Tamblyn-Watts.
She thinks removing isolation requirements for COVID-19 positive Manitobans is a "terrible idea" that "doesn't seem based on evidence."
"We've been working diligently to ensure that we limit the spread of COVID 19, and now it appears that Manitoba has taken the hands off the wheel, and are allowing people who are positively confirmed to be infected to go about their business, which is exactly how pandemics continue, not end."
She also says turning mandates into recommendations may make it harder for care homes to enforce rules they choose to retain.
'Abuse and negligence'
On top of the isolation requirement disappearing, Calisto-Tavares believes dropping the vaccination or routine testing requirement for care home workers is irresponsible.
"In my mind and in the mind of those that are fighting for seniors' rights, that is abuse and negligence," she said.
Ron Westcott, 77, said he isn't as bothered by dropping the vaccine requirements for workers and guests because it's possible to both contract and spread COVID-19 when you're vaccinated, if not at lower rates.
The Brandon care home where his mother Jemima Westcott, 111, lives has always done a good job of enforcing public health orders, he said, and it has notified families it will follow provincial guidance moving forward.
The care home will continue to screen visitors at the entrance and require guests to wear masks, and there are still limits on the number of guests allowed.
But Westcott does question the rationale behind removing the requirement to isolate after testing positive, and he wonders how much say leadership of care homes had in the decision to drop that rule provincewide.
"If someone has tested positive but is allowed out in the public right away, that is a worry to me," he said. "That's something that I am so surprised that they have changed."
A provincial spokesperson said public health advises people stay home when sick.
"Personal care homes have strict infection and prevention control measures in place to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and residents are strongly encouraged to stay up to date with COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations," a spokesperson said in an email.
"Work is still underway as institutions and Shared Health work to finalize their individual site requirements following the Public Health Order changes on March 15."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email email@example.com.
With files from Alana Cole
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