TORONTO - Ontario is loosening pandemic restrictions on long-term care homes as vaccination rates rise and will once again allow some gatherings and physical contact like hugs between residents and their caregivers.

The new rules mean homes can safely resume communal dining, indoor events and gatherings, the province said Tuesday.

The directive also allows residents and caregivers who are fully immunized to have physical contact, like hugging or holding hands.

Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said the province is making the change to improve quality of life for residents.

“The high vaccination uptake in long-term care homes means we can take further steps towards bringing social interactions back - supporting the mental and emotional well-being of residents while protecting their physical well-being,” Fullerton said in a statement.

The directive does advise some additional precautions if homes don't meet the threshold of 85 per cent of residents and 70 per of staff being fully immunized.

Tuesday's move comes after an independent commission examining the spread of COVID-19 in the province's long-term care homes said the mental health consequences of pandemic restrictions for residents were akin to those faced by prisoners in solitary confinement.

In a separate report, also issued last week, Ontario's Auditor General said the province's nursing homes were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of COVID-19 and restrictions took a heavy toll on residents and their families.

The province said that as of Tuesday, approximately 95 per cent of long-term care residents were fully vaccinated and 85 per cent of staff had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 shot.

Once the province's current stay-at-home order is lifted, it will issue further direction that allows social and temporary outings for fully vaccinated residents, it said.

All residents are currently allowed to leave a nursing home for medical or compassionate absences.

Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University specializing in family caregiving, said the government needs to go further by allowing more family members into homes and permitting outdoor visits.

She was also critical of the timing of the changes announced Tuesday.

“This is just PR following a terrible week of bad press and two scathing reports,” she said.

Stamatopoulos said changing some of the rules around travel outside of the homes, ahead of the eventual lifting of the stay-at-home order, would help residents.

“The odd part is the family can go with the residents for one of these health visits, yet the family member can't take them across the street to a park, or can't take them for a drive?” she said. “It doesn't make any sense.”

In January, Ontario prioritized vaccinating long-term care, high-risk retirement, and First Nations elder care residents across the province in a bid to protect people most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said eight weeks after the initial immunizations began in the homes that infections, hospitalizations and deaths among long-term care residents and workers were significantly down.

The province said 3,928 long-term care residents and 10 nursing-home workers have died of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.