VANCOUVER -- Weeks into the province's COVID-19 vaccination rollout and after months of concerns raised about the mental health impacts of isolation, the rules around visiting B.C. seniors are about to change.

Health officials announced the following updates to the policies around long-term care and assisted living, which will come into effect on April 1:

  • All residents can have "regular, frequent and routine" visits;
  • Visitors must be allowed to stay for a minimum of one hour;
  • The "single designated social visitor" is removed, meaning more friends and family can stop by;
  • A maximum of two visitors plus a child can be present at a time;
  • Visits can take place in a resident's room without staff monitoring; and
  • Physical touch is permitted, as long as residents and visitors take appropriate precautions.

Those precautions include masks, and hand washing or hand sanitizer. Additionally, visits will have to be booked in advance, medical masks will be required and visitors will be screened.

In the event of an outbreak, visitation will be suspended, but otherwise, these changes are expected to be in place starting in April and continuing through the end of June.

Health officials will monitor the changes and their impact and re-evaluate if needed.

Additionally, physical distancing will no longer be required between residents, and communal dining and recreational activities can resume.

It's welcome news for families and seniors who've raised concerns about the health impacts of isolation.

“We’re overjoyed at the easing of restrictions,” said Surrey’s Brenda Howard, whose 96-year-old mom is in long-term care. "It’s been over a year of anguish for families and their loved ones in long term care."

“I know a lot of us shed tears watching that news briefing today because we’ve really missed our families and we’ve had to watch their decline from a distance,” Howard added.

Visitor restrictions have been in place in long-term care and assisted living in B.C. since March 2020, as a means of fighting back against the fatal outbreaks reported in the pandemic's early days.

“It is that balance between keeping people absolutely safe and giving them a better quality of life. And I think in some ways we lost that balance over the past year so I’m glad it’s being restored,” said Terry Lake of the B.C. Care Providers Association.

“I think it’s a very good decision,” he added.

The province's top doctor said Thursday that protecting those most vulnerable to the coronavirus has been B.C.'s "most prominent priority," but acknowledged that she knew it hadn't been easy on seniors and their loved ones.

"As you know, there has been no group more adversely affected in our province than our seniors and Elders and people who work in long-term care and assisted living," Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference Thursday.

"I am very, very pleased that we are at a place where we can make some changes that will affect people's quality of life."

Previous visitation rules have led to vast discrepancies among care homes, some only allowing a single visit for 30 minutes once a month.

When asked by CTV News about how she will ensure the revised rules are followed, she admitted it’s been “a challenge" in the past, but said the government is consulting with care homes and the B.C. Care Providers Association to make sure they're aware of the expectations.

Brenda Howard says she’s eager to let her mom see her grandkids again.

“We’re going to hug her and let her hug her grandkids and pet all her pets,” she said.

Meanwhile, speaking about loosening restrictions in general in B.C., including allowing for outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people after months of no gatherings at all, Henry said health officials are being asked why now.

With variants of concern being recorded more often in the province, is this the right time?

"Really it's not about easing restrictions as much as recognizing that at this phase in the pandemic, we need to focus on those things that we can do safely," the provincial health officer said.

Indoor activities are still a risk, she said, and safety will remain a priority.

Outbreaks have decreased in long-term care and assisted living, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said.

"The reality is that it is likely we are going to have more outbreaks in care homes now that we're allowing more people to come in to those care homes," Henry said.

"But we are at a point where the benefits of having those social connections and interactions outweigh the risks, and we know that we can manage those risks with the vast majority of residents and staff now being protected with immunization."

Still, visitors and operators will still need to be cautious and follow precautions to keep residents and staff safe, and there will be regular screening to help reduce the risks.

Visitors will be told to stay home if they're feeling sick, and they'll be limited to visiting one loved one in long-term care or assisted living and not multiple people.