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Quebec government moves to ease some COVID-19 restrictions on seniors

MONTREAL — Quebec moved to gradually ease some restrictions Tuesday on seniors living in private residences who've been asked to remain largely hunkered down since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MONTREAL — Quebec moved to gradually ease some restrictions Tuesday on seniors living in private residences who've been asked to remain largely hunkered down since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Healthy residents who live in homes without confirmed COVID-19 cases and are physically able will be allowed to take walks now without supervision, see family while maintaining a distance, and go to essential services beginning May 11.

There are about 1,800 such private residences, with 130,000 people living in them. Rules barring visits and restricting movement were enacted March 23.

"We know the situation is very difficult, autonomous people have been isolated for two months now," Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday. "We've imposed this for public health reasons, (but) it's time to let them return to a more normal life."

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, said the easing of rules will apply to all people in the province over 70 who are otherwise healthy.

"We cannot be confined ... everybody is going to go crazy if we keep that up for months," Arruda said. "And elderly people will lose their autonomy — especially the ones who are autonomous actually, because they are not stimulated."

Arruda said the relaxing of measures comes with the usual COVID-19 rules including social distancing, washing of hands and wearing a face mask, and the rules could change should the number of COVID-19 cases begin to spike.

Provincial authorities also announced that for humanitarian reasons, families would now be permitted to visit those in palliative care at all types of residences, subject to some safety rules.

"Visits will be allowed in all walks of life, regardless of whether the end of life is imminent or not," said Seniors' Minister Marguerite Blais.

Veronique Hivon, the Parti-Quebecois end-of-life critic, has been critical of how end-of-life has been handled in recent weeks and that people have died alone.

"I just feel so outraged that more and more elderly people who built Quebec, to not be accompanied, to not have a proper farewell from their loved ones," Hivon said.

"It doesn't make any sense ... especially since we've thought so much about those issues in the past years ... that we're not able to organize those goodbyes."

Also Tuesday, caregivers' access to long-term care and seniors' homes — whether private or public —would become the rule rather than the exception.

Although caregivers who did the job prior to the pandemic were told they'd be allowed to return in mid-April to help out, Legault said the province found many residences were continuing to deny their presence.

"We say all caregivers, they have the right to see their people in those homes, and, if residence management refuse, they will have to justify why," Legault said. 

Quebec is still grappling with a shortage of employees in the health sector, with 11,200 missing from the front lines because they are infected with COVID-19 or reluctant to return to work.

Legault called on those workers who have completed their 14-day quarantine — about one-third of those missing in action — to return to work.

The province is expected to announce added incentives in the coming days to encourage more people to apply to work full time in hard-hit long-term care homes, allowing hospital staff to return to their usual jobs.

Meanwhile, Quebec announced 118 new COVID-19 deaths Tuesday for a total of 2,398.

The province also recorded another 794 positive cases of COVID-19, for a total of 33,417 confirmed cases.

Arruda said Tuesday the province wasn't ready to relax rules for now for gatherings such as barbecues, noting the province needed to properly measure the effects of current deconfinement measures.

He said the measures will come, but health officials will need some time.

"I will ask you again to be a little patient," Arruda said. "I am the first to want to barbecue outside ... but I know very well that two meters is not that easy in the context of a meal and a gathering."

Legault also confirmed he'd asked that the numbers relating to long-term care homes be removed from the government's website because of errors.

He said 306 long-term and seniors' residences in the province have at least one COVID-19 cases, with 4,804 residents infected.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press