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Letter: LTC home visitor policies are cruel & unusual punishment

'I believe Ontario is currently engaging in cruel and unusual punishment when it comes to how it treats the ones guilty of the social crime of remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19'
elderly aging parent 2017
File photo

To the editor:

In January of 2021, Ontario set a record for having one of the longest lockdowns in the world.

Some regions had restaurants closed for over 360 days during the first year of the pandemic. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, this set a world record. The province had set another record for having some of the most restrictive and bizarre restrictions. For example, the North Bay region in northern Ontario was the only place in North America to forcibly close outdoor ice rinks, snowmobiling trails, and tobogganing hills in the name of COVID-19 safety.

A year later, Ontario is still setting records. Today they are known as having the most punitive rules for unvaccinated people who wish to visit a hospital or long-term care (LTC) home. I don’t use the word punishment lightly. There is no other way to describe the unique restrictions afflicting unvaccinated Ontarians right now who want to visit their loved ones.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment is described as punishments that are arbitrary, unnecessary, overly severe compared to the crime, or not generally accepted in society.

I believe Ontario is currently engaging in this act when it comes to how it treats the ones guilty of the social crime of remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19. I won’t try to explain the rationale or defend those who remain unvaccinated, but I want to elaborate on how we are clearly in the realm of punishment with the unique rules affecting Ontarians.

One might argue that unvaccinated people deserve a certain level of punishment, however, we cross into dangerous territory when we allow such punishment to be cruel and unusual.

Although there is no law in Ontario forbidding unvaccinated people from visiting hospitals or long-term care homes, most institutions have maintained very unusual policies independently.

While every other province in Canada allows anyone to enter their hospitals or LTC homes with proper screening, almost every hospital or LTC home in Ontario completely forbids one segment of the population (approximately 2.4 million Ontarians) from stepping foot in their buildings.

I describe these rules as unusual. Not because the case data appears to show no meaningful difference in spread between individuals based on the number of doses they received. (Source: Public Health Ontario Case/Vaccination Data for the last 90 days). But they are unusual because every hospital and LTC home in the province has the resources to test every person coming in for COVID-19.

Every person who chose to decline the COVID-19 vaccines is denied the ability to visit loved ones even if they provide a negative test sample. Even if they pay for the test themselves. I don’t think any doctors or medical experts would argue that an unvaccinated person who tests negative at the door is presenting more risk to a hospital than an untested person who may have gotten their shot 12 months ago.

Ontario appears to be one of the only jurisdictions in the world to apply these illogical rules. Even mandate-friendly states south of the border have never even attempted this level of cruelty. New York and California with their incredibly strict vaccine mandates have always allowed all visitors into hospitals regardless of vaccination status. The hospitals or LTC homes in those states that do check for vaccines at the door, allow for a negative PCR test or proof of a recent COVID infection as a substitute. 

Yes, Ontario is once again an outlier in North America. 

The story of Jamie-Lee and Jennifer Desroches paints the picture of what punishment looks like.

Jamie-Lee didn’t do the right thing according to health authorities and declined to take the COVID-19 vaccine last year. She understood that there would be some restrictions based on her choice. But her personal risk assessment of COVID-19 based on her age and health prompted her to wait before taking the new mRNA vaccines. The fact that she already had natural immunity against COVID-19 and the fact the only available vaccine was one created for the original coronavirus strain and not as effective against Omicron, reinforced her decision last Fall.

She would never want to subject her community to a higher than needed COVID-19 risk. Desroches understands the intricacies of managing respiratory risks in hospitals and LTC homes. On top of being a single mother of two young children while both studying and working full-time, she undertook the task of being the primary caregiver for her sister Jennifer four years ago. Jennifer, who received the tragic diagnosis of Huntington’s disease at the age of 22, was placed in a LTC home at the age of 34.

Jamie-Lee has dealt with the regular outbreaks that occur in nursing homes and understood the need for extra precautions.

When many hospitals and LTC homes decided to implement strict vaccination policies for visitors last December despite case data evolving to show no correlation in the spread between vaccination statuses, Desroches wasn’t too worried. Her sister’s home had a great team of health care professionals that had the ability to test every entrant to the home. Surely if she agreed to the added burden of taking a test every single day (ensuring she was COVID-19 negative) she would be allowed to visit with her sister. She was even willing to pay for her own tests. 

But she was in for a surprise when almost every hospital and LTC home in the province elected punitive protocols that would give no exceptions for prior COVID infections or for providing a negative test (proving you cannot infect someone in the home). It's now been over five months since she has been allowed to visit her sister's home. 

What troubles Jamie-Lee most is the unusual punishment her sister endures because of her absence. This past week she was informed by her sister’s nurse that she is starting a serious case of foot fungus that would require more daily care from her caregivers. Unfortunately, as her only caregiver, Jamie-Lee cannot come in to help. The nurse admitted that their staff shortage would likely not allow them to tend to her sisters’ issues appropriately which will likely worsen her problem and eventual mobility. When Desroches informed the nurse that she is still forbidden from entering the home the response was “we will look at starting treatment when they let you back in”.

I highly doubt any medical profession would consider that an appropriate response to a serious health issue. But those who have dealt with the dysfunctional LTC system in Ontario over the last few years will not be surprised.

What troubles me most about Desroches’ story and the unique, arbitrary rules affecting Ontarians is the lack of humanity of it all. Most people are not bothered by this cruel punishment simply because they are of the mind that an unvaccinated person deserves it. They are indifferent to the logical flaws or the unusual aspects of these rules. Their response is: “they should just get the vaccine.”

I don’t blame people for having differing views of the vaccines. Although it doesn’t seem to provide long-term community protection or immunity, it can be seen as a crucial tool to reduce our societal hospital burden.

Regardless of your feelings towards unvaccinated people, they simply have a different belief. It doesn’t matter if you think it doesn’t align with science. And it doesn’t matter if you think they are wrong. If our society truly believes in science, the rules we implement must align with science. We cannot allow or tolerate rules that are simply punitive without logical risk reduction motivations.

Doing so is ultimately anti-science. 

Rejean Venne

West Nipissing