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Are long-term-care homes ready for COVID-19’s second wave? City-owned homes say they are, but others aren’t so sure

Posted: October 9, 2020

(October 8, 2020)

By: Francine Kopun, St. Catharines Standard

Toronto’s 10 long-term-care homes are better prepared to make it through a resurgence of COVID19 than they were during the first wave, when all 10 suffered outbreaks, says the person in charge of the city-run facilities.

“In truth, we were preparing for the second wave in June,” said Paul Raftis, general manager, seniors services and long-term care for the City of Toronto.

“Because of the extreme experience across the sector in March and April, the last thing we wanted to do was to get into any sort of trouble like that again …There is no question that we’re in far better shape today because of our knowledge of the virus and virus spread.”

Raftis said that while they began planning for the first wave of COVID back in January, when the first person in Canada was diagnosed with the virus, they had been planning for a disease that acted like the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus, which struck Toronto in 2003.

COVID-19 spreads much more easily than SARS and has a longer incubation period.

“We quickly learned that this virus acted very differently,” Raftis said.

The last COVID-19 outbreak in a city-run home ended Aug. 17. There are no homes with an outbreak now, Raftis said. He added that while two staff at Cummer Lodge recently contracted COVID-19 in the community, there are no cases among residents.

Provincial legislation has made a difference — it’s no longer permissible for long-term-care staff to cycle between facilities; they must choose one to work at, reducing the risk of transmission between facilities.

Raftis said the city has also moved as many people from four-bed wards as possible and are trying to ensure that everyone gets a flu shot this year — visitors can easily pass the flu on to a resident, putting them at greater risk of also getting COVID-19.

During the outbreaks, management was reassigned to essential work and will be redeployed again in the event of new outbreaks to support front-line workers, said Raftis.

Preparations have also been made to staff a contact centre in the event of new outbreaks, so families have a place the know they can call for information.

Not everyone is as confident about what the second wave will look like in long-term care.

Lisa Levin, chief executive officer of AdvantAge Ontario, which represents 400 not-for-profit and municipal long-term-care facilities in the province, said she is concerned there will be even greater staffing issues this time around.

Levin said it’s difficult to staff long-term care homes at the best of times, and it’s even more difficult during an outbreak, when employees book off sick. B.C. addressed the issue by retraining unemployed hospitality workers to do the work. In Ontario, the Registered Nurses’ Association provided nursing students to go into homes, but can no longer do so due to lack of government funding, Levin said.

School board employees, also redeployed to long-term care homes during the first wave, are now back at work with students and not in a position to help out again.

“My concerns for staffing in long-term care are greater in the second wave than the first wave, because we actually have fewer options,” said Levin.

Natalie Mehra, executive director, Ontario Health Coalition, said that while publicly funded long-term-care homes are generally in better shape and focus more on care of residents than for-profit facilities, there remain concerns.

Municipal facilities tend to be older and typically have more rooms with multiple residents, and testing in Ontario has reached a point where the results are not being returned quickly enough to optimally fight contagion.

The coalition staged a provincewide protest on Oct. 8 in 25 towns across Ontario and with a 50-car motorcade in Toronto that ended at Queen’s Park for a press conference calling on the province to take action to address the shortage of staff and care in long-term-care homes.

Mehra said the funding announcements from the province over the past two weeks were “late, piecemeal, and inadequate,” and that the province failed to come up an effective long-term-care strategy despite having months to prepare for a second wave.

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