The Ford government is restricting visitors at long-term care homes in regions with higher levels of COVID-19 infections but will still allow residents in those facilities to designate two “essential caregivers” who will be exempt from the new policy.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement at Queen’s Park on Tuesday afternoon as he detailed his government’s $540 million plan to protect long-term care homes during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said that as of Monday, visits at long-term care homes in some hard-hit regions of the province will be limited to “staff, essential visitors and essential caregivers only.”

Ford did not confirm precisely which regions will fall under the new more restrictive visitor policy but did say that it will include the Greater Toronto and Ottawa areas.

He said that decision to restrict visitors at some facilities was not one he took lightly but was ultimately something that had to be done given the recent rise in COVID-19 infections and the deadly spread of the virus through long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“I know first-hand how hard it can be. But it is absolutely necessary,” he said in a reference to his mother-in-law, who resides in a Toronto long-term care home and was effected by earlier restrictions on visitors. “We can’t let COVID-19 get into these homes.”

All non-essential visits to the long-term care homes were suspended during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March and only began to resume in June.

By allowing up to two essential caregivers per resident this time around, the province is hoping to allow visits from loved-ones to continue on a more limited and controlled basis.

According to an explainer on the province’s website, anyone one can qualify as an essential caregiver so long as they provide “direct care” to residents, such as help with feeding, mobility, hygiene or cognitive stimulation.

“We know the vital role that essential caregivers play in the lives of so many residents in our long-term care homes,” Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said during Tuesday’s press conference.

“Residents are encouraged to identify and ensure the designation is in writing for up to two individuals to be essential caregivers. Doing so will ensure the continuation of visits and support the physical and mental wellbeing of residents at the home.”

46 active outbreaks

There are currently a total of 46 outbreaks in Ontario long-term Care homes with those outbreaks having so far resulted in 78 positive cases among residents and 123 positive cases among staff.

Those numbers are a far cry from the level of infections seen in long-term care homes earlier in the pandemic when more than 6,000 residents were infected with COVID-19 and more than 1,800 died.

Nonetheless, concerns have been raised in recent days about the preparedness of the sector for the resurgence of the virus.

Last week, a number of unions representing long-term care workers held a press conference where they called on the Ford government to take action now to improve conditions in long-term care homes before there is a “repeat of death and destruction.”

At the time the union leaders said that the province should, among other things, mandate higher staff-to-resident ratios and boost wages to attract more nurses and personal support workers.

The plan unveiled by the Ford government on Tuesday doesn’t do any of that but it does commit to providing homes with $405 million to help with operating pressures related to COVID-19 , such as the need for additional staff and personal protective equipment (PPE).

It also promises another $61million to pay for capital repairs and renovations to improve infection control, such as updated HVAC systems. There is also another $30 million in funding that will go towards hiring about 150 new staff across the province to lead infection control efforts in long-term care homes.

In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, the Ontario Long Term Care Association said that the funding being promised by the Ford government “will begin to address some of the existing gaps in the system.”

The association, however, said that long-term care staffing “is in a crisis” and that there remains an immediate need to “recruit an army of employees” to work inside Ontario’s long-term care homes.

In a separate statement, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also pointed out that today’s announcement “does very little to recruit or retain staff for long-term care, and falls far, far short of investing in the many extra pairs of hands every long-term care home needs right now.”

“Personal support workers (PSWs) have left the profession in droves due to illness, low wages, or because the risk is too great for themselves and their loved ones,” she said. “Doug Ford’s announcement today doesn’t even make up for the staffing shortage this has created in long-term care homes since the pandemic struck.”