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Ontario’s ombudsman received more than 800 complaints due to COVID-19

Posted: July 1, 2020

(June 30, 2020)

By: Rob Ferguson, Northumberland News


Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube also launched an investigation June 1 into the provincial government’s oversight of nursing homes and released his annual report this week. – Dan Pearce

Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé says his investigation into the high death toll from COVID-19 at nursing homes is looking at how more inspections and higher standards could have saved lives.

“We’re moving full speed ahead on this,” Dubé told reporters Tuesday after releasing his annual report. “It’s not just identifying problems, it’s proposing feasible solutions that are going to make this better in the future.”

Dubé said that beyond concerns about long-term care — where 1,809 vulnerable residents and seven staff have died to date — the pandemic has kept his office busy with complaints from people unable to reach government offices, unhappy with home schooling and unable to claim lottery prizes.

The Ministry of Health reported 157 new cases of the virus in its Tuesday report, including five residents and one staffer in nursing homes, where 5,473 residents and 2,284 workers have been infected since January.

Dubé’s investigation into the provincial government’s oversight of 626 nursing homes began June 1, prompted by a shocking Canadian Armed Forces report into deplorable conditions at five facilities where military medical teams were deployed because of a drastic shortage of staff.

There were examples of residents malnourished or forcefully fed to the point of choking, left in bed for weeks to develop painful bedsores that ate through their skin, left in soiled diapers for extended periods or left crying for help for hours because there was no one to help them.

Premier Doug Ford has acknowledged the long-term care system is “broken” and promised an “independent commission” into the problems to begin in July, although he has not yet named a commissioner, terms of reference, or hearing dates for families of residents and industry stakeholders to testify.

Dubé said his probe will centre on the roles played by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Long-Term Care on a systemic level and leave individual concerns surrounding residents to a separate probe by the Ministry of Health’s patient ombudsman’s office.

The focus will be on “best practices” that kept death tolls in nursing homes lower in jurisdictions such as Australia, which took more pre-emptive measures to protect against the highly contagious novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Dubé added.

He deflected criticisms that the focus will be too narrow, given concerns that problems in long-term care such as staffing shortages and funding pre-date the virus by decades, and said a broader investigation into the entire sector would take “four or five years.”

“What’s really essential is to get to the crux of the problem. People died in long-term care during the pandemic. Why did it happen? How can we prevent that from happening again?” Dubé added, noting it’s hard to predict when the probe will wrap up and issue a report.

“What we’re trying to do is bring positive change to the areas of, primarily … standards and inspections and standards and compliance.”

Ford’s government has been criticized for not doing enough inspections at nursing homes and for a lack of personal protective equipment, such as masks and face shields, for staff in the early stages of the pandemic.

The Ontario Health Coalition said Tuesday that access to PPE has improved somewhat for surgical masks, but that gowns and the more effective N95 masks remain in short supply, and gave the government a grade of F on staffing levels.

“Without enough staff, there is not enough time to bathe, feed, hydrate, reposition, and provide even the most basic care for residents, let alone provide care with residents and staff sick with COVID-19 and in isolation,” the coalition said in a statement.

Dubé said his office received more than 800 complaints related to COVID-19 by the end of March, when the fiscal year ended just two weeks after Ford declared a state of emergency in the province.

“If there is one lesson we can draw from this pandemic, it is how much citizens rely on their public services,” he said. “Given the scale of this pandemic and the speed with which it spread, there were bound to be gaps.”

In his 92-page report, Dube said concerns ranged from a lack of personal protective equipment for staff and residents of youth group homes to a member of a group that won a $1 million lottery prize and was unable to reach Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s prize centre because it was shut down due to the pandemic.

When the ombudsman’s office intervened, “OLG officials told us the group’s claim had been approved, and it sent the cheques to the winners the same day.”

There was also the case of a disabled woman with cancer, who was relying on the Ontario Disability Support Program for income. She needed money for transportation but could not reach her case worker because the office was closed — a problem that was rectified.

Moms, dads and kids were also not thrilled with the new world of education at home instead of in the classroom.

“Many parents and students complained to us about such issues as the quality and accessibility of at-home learning,” Dubé said, referring to concerns about a lack of “sufficient communication and support.”

The top concern in the report, however, was over correctional services, with more than 6,000 complaints, many citing terrible conditions in the aging and overcrowded Thunder Bay jail, which Dubé visited.

“I was shaken when I left,” he said. “In the four years I’ve been ombudsman, the most disturbing thing I’ve seen and the most appalling conditions I’ve observed are in the Thunder Bay jail.”

Dubé said he reminded the government that “time is of the essence” in building a new jail.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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