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Big changes are needed in long-term care homes

Posted: May 14, 2020

(May 13, 2020)

By: Luisa D’Amato, (Metroland Media Group)

Paramedics help each other with their personal protective equipment as they prepare to enter Forest Heights Revera long-term care home in Kitchener.

In a national crisis, we look for a strong centralized government that can make things happen quickly. Nothing else is big enough to do the job.

Perhaps that’s why the calls for a full government inquiry into the state of long-term care homes for the elderly seem like such a logical and necessary next step.

Those homes, of course, are where COVID-19 has been at its most deadly. As of Tuesday, 82 per cent of the 104 COVID-19 deaths in Waterloo Region were in homes for the elderly.

One Kitchener home, Forest Heights Long-Term Care, owned by Revera, has seen 46 deaths. That’s 44 per cent of the total.

Revera is a Mississauga-based company that owns many homes for the elderly. It’s also a for-profit enterprise (although in a shocking column from earlier this week, Record contributor Geoffrey Stevens revealed it is also 100 per cent owned by the Government of Canada).

In many homes like it, workers and advocates have spoken about poorly paid staff travelling between part-time jobs in different homes, which increased the risk of infection.

The Ontario government put a stop to the multiple workplaces, but by the time that happened, the outbreaks were already well underway.

Additionally, there were and are staff shortages, protective equipment shortages and crowding of residents. Forest Heights has four residents to a room in some parts of its operation.

There are some good profit-making organizations out there. But overall, the research shows that what’s good for shareholders and owners is bad for residents.

The Ontario Health Coalition last week released a study of 93 homes in the province that had experienced outbreaks. The death rate, measured by the number of deaths against the number of beds in the home, was nine per cent in for-profit homes, 5.25 per cent in nonprofit homes and 3.62 per cent in municipally owned homes.

Although Ontario Premier Doug Ford has appeared genuinely upset by the situation, his government had planned to make $34 million in cuts to the sector this fall, Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo said.

“As bad as the numbers are, as horrific as things are at Forest Heights, I don’t want them to be a scapegoat,” she said.

The whole sector is “starved,” and needs an overhaul.

For-profit homes may have a different management style than those not run for profit, she said. They may wait longer to stock up on personal protective equipment.

They may use more casual and part-time workers, which is a less expensive way to staff a facility, but not as safe. A casual employee may not be properly fitted for a mask, for example. He or she may be quicker to quit, which means remaining employees struggle to cover the workload.

As a surge of baby boomers are poised to enter retirement and long-term care homes, it seems unlikely we will get rid of the for-profit sector entirely.

But government could keep a much closer eye, with more investment and strictly enforced quality control.

This week, the Minister of Long-Term Care gave a few days to managers of homes for the elderly to submit plans to keep staffing levels up, ensure proper medical care and contain the spread of COVID-19.

Quick reports aren’t really what we need, though.

Lindo and the New Democrat Party opposition say we need an independent inquiry into long-term care quality, led by a non-partisan person or group.

They’re right.

We did this 17 years ago when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic killed 44 people across Canada.

We can do it today for the 1,725 people, and counting, who have perished from COVID-19 in Ontario alone.

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