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Downtown Eastside Residents Still Waiting for Visitors to Be Allowed

Alone in his apartment, Bill Quinn has struggled: ‘You need to talk to people.’

Jen St. Denis 10 Jul

Jen St. Denis is a Vancouver-based journalist who has covered housing, economics, business and politics. Her work has appeared in Star Vancouver, the Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Business in Vancouver and Vancouver Courier.

It’s been four months since COVID-19 restrictions started in B.C., and while visitors are now being allowed in the province’s high-risk long-term care homes, residents of a Downtown Eastside seniors’ building still don’t know when friends and families will be allowed to visit.

Vancouver Coastal Health says it is concerned about no visitor policies and has been meeting with housing providers to encourage them to once again allow visitors, according to a spokesperson for the health authority. And yet, the restrictions are still in place in some buildings.

“I have friends that drop by to make errands to me — just to visit and say ‘Hi,’” 81-year-old Bill Quinn told The Tyee. “You need to talk to people. This is crazy, sitting here with nobody to talk to.”

Quinn said it’s now been four months since his building, Veterans Memorial Manor at 310 Alexander St., has allowed visitors.

The decision was made by the building’s manager, according to an employee who answered the building’s main phone line. The manager declined to speak with The Tyee, but the employee said the no visitor rule remains in place and he didn’t know when it would be changed.

Whole Way House Society provides "community building programs and tenant support services for 133 vulnerable seniors and veterans” at Veterans Memorial Manor.*

Jenny Konkin, a co-founder of the society, said all decisions on building policies are made by the building manager and did not answer questions from The Tyee about why the decision had been made.

Quinn said two friends he pays to clean his room haven’t been able to come, so he tries to do the work himself, although it’s painful to use his hands because of his rheumatoid arthritis, and he’s afraid of falling.

In addition to the physical discomfort, Quinn’s emotional and mental health are also suffering.

“This lockup is frustrating, very depressing, it causes loneliness, it causes worry, it causes anger,” Quinn said, reading The Tyee a statement he’d carefully prepared.

Quinn said health-care workers are being allowed into the building to attend to residents, and he gets regular low-cost meals from Evelyne Saller Centre. He’s also able to leave the building, travelling on his mobility scooter to get outside and buy his own food.

But he’d just like to know how long the no visitor rule will last and thinks residents should be allowed at least one visitor.

"No guest" policies were put in place by housing providers across the Downtown Eastside in mid-March as COVID-19 cases rose and the province largely shut down.

But B.C. has been successful in flattening the curve of new cases and has entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan.

A month into the pandemic response, Vancouver Coastal Health warned about the dire health impacts of no visitor rules.

In April, Vancouver’s chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly told city council that fatal overdoses had shot up in the Downtown Eastside during the pandemic, and she would prefer that housing operators allow guests.

An outbreak of COVID-19 would have been devastating for the Downtown Eastside, where many residents have multiple underlying health conditions. But while there have been community cases in the area, there was never an outbreak at any apartment building, SRO or shelter.

“We have very little COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside, but we continue to see overdose deaths every week,” Daly told council on April 28.

Daly said there was a low risk of COVID-19 transmission from guests visiting, but the risk of consuming drugs alone is very high.

Now, as B.C.’s case count remains low, Vancouver Coastal Health is emphasizing it has not recommended restricting visitors, “given the low risk of COVID-19 in B.C.”

VCH says it continues to try to get buildings to change overly restrictive policies. The health authority has been sending staff to meet with housing providers to encourage them to relax the guest restrictions that were in place early on in the pandemic.

On its website, Portland Hotel Society said visitors are still not allowed in the buildings it operates. “Only essential visitors such as health-care providers are being allowed entry,” it states.

In March, Atira Women’s Resource Society restricted guests, but made exceptions for “permanent guests” (people who stay with permanent residents regularly) and informal caregivers, said CEO Janice Abbott.

The housing provider is now planning to ease those restrictions, asking residents to pick two guests who will be allowed to visit regularly.

Those visitors will be required to wear masks and Atira also plans to limit the number of guests in buildings. Those rules will help to keep shared bathrooms cleaner and allow people to physically distance in hallways and other common areas, Abbott said.

Abbott said Atira has no power to limit guests under the Residential Tenancy Act but believes having the rules in place will help manage the “two pandemics” of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis.

For Quinn, overdosing is not a concern. The residential school survivor said he hasn’t had alcohol for 39 years and has been off heroin for 40 years.

Quinn said he takes proper precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing, to guard against getting COVID-19, and he’s not overly worried about catching the illness.

Long-term care homes in B.C. have been ravaged by the virus: there have been multiple outbreaks at dozens of facilities mostly in Metro Vancouver, and hundreds of residents have died.

But on June 30, B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced visitors could again visit long-term care homes, provided the facility wasn’t experiencing an outbreak and rules like mask-wearing and visitors booking a time in advance were observed.

Quinn just wants to know how much longer he’ll have to wait.

“No one informs us how long this lock-up is supposed to last,” he said. “This is not right.”

*Story updated on Aug. 10 at 4:39 p.m. to note that Whole Way House Society does not operate the Veterans Memorial Manor, but provides community building programs and tenant support services to the building.  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Housing

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