Manitoba’s $17.9-million visitation shelters to allow personal care home residents to see loved ones during a pandemic are nearly all in place but won’t be used under code-red restrictions.

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Manitoba’s $17.9-million visitation shelters to allow personal care home residents to see loved ones during a pandemic are nearly all in place but won’t be used under code-red restrictions.

"The investment that we have made to be able to facilitate visits between people in personal care homes and their loves ones is an important investment," Health Minister Cameron Friesen said recently.

By Dec. 19, 94 of the 105 outdoor visitation shelters were to be ready for operation as soon as critical, red-level pandemic restrictions are eased, a provincial government spokeswoman said. Another 54 indoor visitation shelters were to be completed this past weekend but won’t be available for use until after code red is lifted.

Permits for three remaining outdoor visitation shelters and three indoor visitation shelters are being finalized, the government spokeswoman said. Construction timelines at various sites have been affected by COVID-19, including delays in obtaining construction and manufacturing supplies and because of outbreaks at some personal care homes, she noted.

The health minister was quick to defend the visitation shelters when asked Dec. 21 if preparing for the second wave of COVID-19 and expanding testing, contact tracing and care home staffing to prevent the virus’s spread would’ve been a better investment.

"I assure you that thousands of Manitobans are thanking us for the investment that can make sure they can continue to see their mom or dad or grandma in a safe, secure space," Friesen said a week ago.

PCL Constructors Ltd. was awarded the $17.9 million contract to outfit the 40-foot insulated, heated and air-conditioned shelters with a germicidal UVC lighting system and set them up at each site. Each has room for one resident and up to five visitors, with separate entrances for both. The shelters are to last at least five years.

Liberal health critic Dr. Jon Gerrard said he respects the "effort" made but questions the usefulness of the visitation shelters if they stay closed during critical stages of a pandemic.

"Five years is not a long time if you’re going to spend that much money," Gerrard said. "I think the first emphasis should have been made on making personal care homes safe," he said.

Asymptomatic COVID-19 testing should’ve been conducted at all care homes as soon as cases were identified to detect and isolate those who are infectious, he said.

"This should’ve been one of the planning items put in place during the summer because, clearly, in June this was being recognized in Ontario and other jurisdictions as an important step," Gerrard said.

"There’s level of surveillance above and beyond what we’re doing that would make a difference. You don’t have any other way of finding people who are asymptomatic."

On Aug. 27, there were outbreaks at just two personal care homes in Manitoba and two resident deaths reported — both at Steinbach’s Bethesda Place. The cases there reportedly stemmed from a worker who was infectious but hadn’t yet developed symptoms. The other outbreak was at Rideau Park Personal Care Home in Brandon, and also stemmed from a health-care worker.

There are now outbreaks at 30 personal care homes in Winnipeg alone.

The province launched a pilot project on Dec. 21 to rapid test asymptomatic health-care workers for COVID-19 at three personal care homes, Winnipeg’s Donwood Manor and Deer Lodge Centre, and Country Meadows in Neepawa. The pilot runs for four weeks using rapid testing that provides results in 20 minutes.

"The fact is, if we’d been able to achieve many fewer cases in PCHs then we could have gradually and very carefully increased the potential for visits," Gerrard said.

Although personal care home residents are on the province’s priority list for receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in the new year, they will still need safe shelters for visiting loved ones, the health minister said.

"We are not out of the woods," Friesen said. "We have months and months ahead of us in which we could see the need to facilitate those visits. In those cases, it will be COVID shelters and other places like that that enable loved ones to gather in those places."

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.