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Coronavirus: Nursing homes begin refilling beds emptied by pandemic, worrying families

Posted: June 20, 2020

(June 19, 2020)

By: Stewart Bell and Andrew Russell, Global News

The Markhaven nursing home lost 17 residents to the coronavirus, but now that its outbreak has been declared over, the management has told families it is refilling beds emptied by the pandemic.

“We’re going to start admitting new residents this week, and will continue to do so, over time, until our home is full once again,” the home in Markham, Ont., told families in a June 15 email.

New residents must be tested for COVID-19 and isolate for 14 days upon admission, but some families are uncomfortable with it and say staff have told them they are concerned about the added workload.

“It’s too soon,” said Cameron Robson, whose 91-year-old mother is at Markhaven.

He said the residents have been through a tough time during the outbreak, which ended just a month ago, and he was worried.

The home said it was “following the directives given by Public Health to mitigate the risk of infection in the home.”

As infection rates across Canada decline and more long-term care homes are deemed virus-free, they are beginning to take in new residents to fill the hundreds of beds left vacant by those who succumbed to the virus.

The latest Ontario government figures put the number of care home residents who have died of COVID-19 at 1,797. But 36,000 people are waiting for care home beds, according to the Ontario Long Term Care Association.

“We have to be cautious,” said Donna Duncan, the industry association’s CEO. “We have to take whatever steps we can and we have to make sure that we’re protecting our seniors.”

She said most of the province’s more than 600 long-term care homes did not have outbreaks, and with vigilance and proper infection prevention measures they could accommodate new residents.

“We know that COVID-19 is very dangerous for people over the age of 80 with chronic conditions and that is our resident population,” Duncan told Global News in an interview.

The Ontario government has permitted homes without active outbreaks to take in new residents. Those being admitted must have tested negative for COVID-19 within 24 hours of admission.

Care homes must also ensure they have a plan to isolate new residents for two weeks. The same requirements apply to residents being re-admitted to homes after hospital stays.

“There’s a massive shortage of beds so I can kind of see why, if you’ve got 80 empty beds in your home, you do want to fill them,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, the union that represents many long-term care workers.

“But it’s the same with our hurry to open up the province. I think we need to wait a little longer.”

She said the staffing shortages that exacerbated the long-term care crisis during the pandemic continued.

“And we were already in a crisis, so if they’re bringing in residents, I would be asking, if I was a family member in there, what is the staff quota before you bring in more?”

Asked about the concerns, Markhaven’s executive director Mike Bakewell said the facility was “very confident in the directives authorities have put in place to screen new residents.”

“Ultimately, the healthcare system must continue functioning for the people of Ontario, and this includes those who are in need of long-term care,” he said.

“Staffing levels in long-term care are predicated by the funding levels decided upon by the Provincial Government. I would recommend redirecting your questions around staffing levels to them. They are currently affording additional funding to homes to allow for increased staffing levels in light of the current pandemic.”

But the Ontario Health Coalition also said it was too soon.

“It is a concern,” said Natalie Mehta. “I mean, we are seeing that there are outbreaks that are declared over and then a new outbreak starts. That has happened both in long-term care homes and in hospitals.

“And so we’re not out of the woods.”

Meanwhile, the 96-bed Markhaven home said in a June 5 email to families that admitting new residents would be a “very labour-intensive process” and staff were being reassigned to the task.

“Although this will no doubt make it a busy time for everyone here, we certainly welcome another step back to some degree of normalcy,” the facility wrote in its most recent message.

Robson said one concern is that even if new residents are isolated, the staff will still move between rooms.

Families have had “no say, no input and definitely no assurances” about bringing in new residents so soon after the outbreak,” he said.

“It’s a huge anxiety.”

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