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Province needs to call in the military again to help Ontario’s long-term-care homes, says health coalition head

Posted: December 31, 2020

(December 30, 2020)

By: Jeremy Nuttall, Toronto Star

Measures taken to protect those in Ontario’s long-term-care homes have been a failure and the military should once again be sent into the facilities, says the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition.

Natalie Mehra said, as the second wave of COVID-19 continues to ravage Ontario, the conditions inside long-term-care homes for the elderly are at an all-time low.

“What’s very clear is that the measures that were taken in the first wave and, so far, in the second wave are insufficient,” Mehra said. “What we’re seeing is worse than anything I have ever seen in the homes.”

As of Wednesday morning, 2,729 people have died as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario care homes.

A COVID testing backlog and poor enforcement have contributed to an increase of infections and deaths in long-term-care homes, Mehra said.

Mehra’s comments come despite numerous promises and directives from the province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care since the beginning of the pandemic when Ontario requested the help of the military to deal with the homes.

In a statement Wednesday evening the province insisted it is doing all it can to stem the second wave.

As COVID-19 tore through long-term-care facilities earlier this year, the province promised aggressive action, including improved screening of staff, residents and visitors, and ensuring medical supplies are promptly delivered to places in need.

In November, the government promised to establish a new “gold” standard for care homes in the province by 2024, ensuring residents four hours of care per day. Weeks later it issued a directive stipulating those working or volunteering in care homes must take regular COVID tests.

But the Ontario Health Coalition says these measures don’t go far enough, calling current staffing levels a crisis. Earlier this month, the coalition released a survey of 88 staff in dozens of long-term-care homes experiencing outbreaks. Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said they did not have adequate staffing.

That refrain was repeated by families and supporters who protested on Tuesday outside the Tendercare Living Centre in Toronto, where an outbreak had claimed 48 lives as of Tuesday afternoon, prompting urgent calls for more staff.

Compounding the staffing problem, Mehra said, is that homes have become exhausting and unsafe workplaces, and many employees have chosen to leave their jobs.

Efforts by the province to solve these problems are failing, she stressed.

One good idea the province pursued, said Mehra, was banning personal support workers from working at multiple homes, one likely cause of the virus’s spread during the first wave. However, Mehra pointed to “gaping loopholes” in the government’s order, which did not place such limits on those working for temp agencies. Nothing stopped them from working at multiple facilities and this has made the problem worse, she said.

“As the staffing has fallen into chaos in the homes there’s more agency staff than ever providing care,” she said. “So there’s more staff that are going from home to home to home.”

Personal protective equipment has been another issue where the government’s measures have fallen short, Mehra said.

Rather than making it mandatory for homes to ensure PPE such as N95 masks are being used widely and properly, the government simply mandated that a worker be provided one if asked.

The policy puts the onus on the “most disempowered people” working in care homes to ask for a mask, Mehra said.

“The homes are rationing them,” she said. “In the large outbreak homes they tell us they don’t have fit-tested N95 masks. There may be N95 masks on site, but they’re locked up.”

She added that enforcement of the directives has also been lax despite the ongoing issues and mounting death toll. Emergency interventions have been limited as well, she said.

“Not one home has been fined, not one license has been revoked; there has been no consequence,” she said.

The Star sent a request for an interview to the office of the minister of long-term care and to the ministry itself. The ministry responded with a lengthy statement from media relations manager Rob McMahon detailing efforts it has made to fight the second wave, including addressing urgent staff shortages.

It said fighting the virus in care homes is a learning process and that the province has invested more than half a billion dollars to help mitigate the effects of the second wave through a comprehensive plan. It also said the province has undertaken a major recruitment drive for staff.

Mehra pointed out after a first wave of COVID-19 swept through long-term-care homes in Quebec that province invested in training thousands of personal support workers in anticipation of a second wave.

No such efforts were made specifically for care home staff in Ontario after the first wave, she said.

“There’s no question in our minds that the military needs to come back,” she said. “We need help.”

But, she said, she’s concerned such help won’t be requested after a leaked report slammed the conditions of the care homes following a military takeover of several homes in April. The report detailed cases of abuse, neglect and insect infestations, among other issues in some Ontario care homes.

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