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Rosie DiManno: As COVID-19 deaths surge, Canadian Forces personnel step into the breach at Hawthorne Place Care Centre

Posted: May 8, 2020

(May 7, 2020)

By: Rosie DiManno,

Marian Van Vleit has rolled herself outside for a smoke.

And before you get too judge-y, keep in mind that the woman is 60 years old, had a stroke six months ago, and has been resident, grumpily, at a long-term-care facility ever since.

Enjoying a cigarette under the small portico of Hawthorne Place Care Centre on Finch Avenue is one of the few liberties permitted Van Vleit, who’s had it up to here with domineering minders and management rules.

“I don’t want to be here, let’s put it that way,” says Van Vleit as she gropes around her wheelchair, one-handed as her other side is paralyzed, for a face mask. “I’m not getting help from any of the workers; you can ring the care bell forever, but nobody comes. We’re all adults, but they treat us like children. Bossy, bossy. I’m not a child. At least they’re letting me out now to smoke.’’

That view of Hawthorne was not shared by another resident, 65-year-old George Gabriel, as he, too, emerged for a breath of fresh air. “My son put me in here three months ago. I’d say they’re taking care of me quite well. I know some people here have died from the COVID, but I feel safe.”

Hawthorne, on restricted access with a COVID-19 outbreak, is among five Toronto long-term residences that put out the SOS, and have received, assistance from the Canadian Forces, which has deployed personnel to back up staff, including doctors, nurses and grunts doing orderly chores.

“Yeah, I’ve seen quite a few of them around,” says Van vleit. “They’ve been bringing us our meals, helping feed those who can’t eat on their own.”

It should be noted that Hawthorne was also among six for-profit Ontario long-term care homes named in a proposed class-action lawsuit. Among the allegations in the statement of claim: that residents who’d tested positive for the virus were being kept in the same spaces as healthy individuals, that the homes had inadequate staff to cope with the outbreak crisis, had failed to supply sufficient personal protective equipment or conduct proper screening procedures, hadn’t communicated adequately, if at all, with residents’ families. According to the statement of claim, staff had been directed by one manager “not to wear even a surgical mask as it would scare the residents.”

None of these allegations have been tested in court yet.

“I feel like I don’t have it and I’m not going to get it,” insists Gabriel.

Executive director Gale Coburn told the Star, by email, that 31 residents have died of COVID-19 and there are 48 active cases. “This is an especially trying time for me, for our staff, our residents and their families, and we are truly grateful for the support from CAF and our other community partners as we work to get through this together.”

Coburn says the home, from the onset, has implemented all public health directives, including isolating residents in their rooms, providing meals via a tray service and monitoring temperatures at least twice a day. All staff soldiers are screened as they arrive and before they leave.

It was on April 28, says Coburn, that 28 service personnel were integrated into Hawthorne’s care team, following a full-day orientation. “The armed forces work with us six days a week to ensure our home has full coverage in all departments, with 14 CAF members providing support to our staff during the day and 14 in the evening.

Many staff members had also fallen ill. “With so many of our staff off, we are very grateful to have this support of the CAF. The provincial government was critical in advocating for this support. Staff are now beginning to return to work which will help reduce our need for the CAF personnel over time.”

A military van pulls up to the front door, a couple of masked service women handing off food supplies to a pair of colleagues in white boiler suits. Bringing up the rear is a civilian, Kamilah Blair, who’s made Hawthorne part of her volunteer food drop-off run on this afternoon: 60 boxes of fried chicken, via Royalty Helping Hand and Mothers With Hope.

“(It’s) because front-line workers are doing more than they should be,” explains Blair, who’s been on community donation patrol since the pandemic began. “Just trying to give back a little. They need to eat, right? They’re just the best people ever.’’

Some factoids were released Thursday by Canadian Armed Forces, outlining the “collaborative” work underway in Ontario and Quebec. Both provinces are the worst-afflicted and turned to the military with pleas for help, the deployed providing assistance with day-to-day operations, helping with the coordination and provision of medical care and providing general support.

In Quebec, which requested help on April 22, 1,200 personnel have fanned out to 20 long-term facilities, which will be extended to 25 homes by the middle of the month; in Ontario, 250 CAF members are serving in five seniors’ homes. Everybody on seniors’ duty has undergone a five-day training regimen for the purpose, tailored to address the unique needs of the elderly.

In order to cover the large deployment in Quebec, the military has had to reduce the number of medical staff at bases across the country to “bare bones” levels, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told a news briefing in Ottawa on Thursday.

“We are pulling in all of our medical personnel into this fight and we’re doing it as quickly as possible.’’

Those aforementioned “unique needs” can be imagined, although nobody likes to much talk about them. It’s almost unseemly, such is our collective discomfort with the reality of frail people, of bodies that fall apart as the years pass. Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada’s top military commander — he’s seen more than his share of battlefront horrors — picked his way delicately around the details when a reporter put the question directly.

“Those support troops principally work inside and you should think in terms of orderly-type functions: moving equipment, helping with logistics on the inside, cleaning and food service, duties not associated with the intimate medical care of an individual.”

Like changing diapers. We don’t like to speak of that, the indignities of growing old and dependent.

“The intimate personal support care that you would expect someone to do … is being done by our medical people or by our medical people with some help from the orderlies … for being able to move someone, get them out of bed and so on,” said Vance. “We are very conscious of the fact that there is something about the medical training that makes someone far more suited to the intimate, not only medical care, but that intimate support care that you would expect to be offered people in long-term care facilities.”

Coburn explains that the military additions “jumped in” to assist in “additional hospital-grade sanitation of our home. Since then, CAF members have been helpful in many areas of our home including dietary care, personal care, and ongoing sanitization.”

The coronavirus pandemic has cut a swath through our long-term care homes, reaping death, causing confusion and extra misery for residents, many of whom already suffer from cognitive impairment. To contain transmission of the virus, they’ve been forcibly denied the company of family, even on their deathbed.

No other demographic — this is true for the world around — has borne the burden more than a generation elderly parents and grandparents.

The disposables.

Because that “iron ring” around care homes that Premier Doug Ford swore would be erected — there’s no doubt of his sincerity — has been terribly incomplete.

As of Thursday, according to government statistics, outbreaks had assailed 174 long-term homes; 2,831 residents and 1,671 had tested positive; 1,111 residents had died.

The National Institute on Aging COVID-19 Tracker reports that close to 289 Ontario retirement and long-term care homes have been affected by the virus, to date: 6,939 total cases, 1,187 resident and staff deaths.

Who will raise a memorial to them when this crisis passes?

According to the Ontario Health Coalition, the rate of death, as measured by the proportion of deaths over the total number of beds in homes with outbreaks, is significantly higher, at nine per cent, in for-profit homes; it stands at 5.25 per cent in non-profit homes and 3.62 per cent in publicly-owned (municipal) homes.

COVID or no COVID, it’s the business enterprise that keeps on giving here. Death is a dividend, actually; every bed that comes available immediately snatched up.

Quebec, to its belated credit, announced on Tuesday that it would immediately begin easing restrictions at nursing homes, allowing residents to walk outside and visit with family, with physical distancing observed. Relatives will also be permitted at the bedside of the dying.

It took them two months to figure out that imprisoning the elderly is inhumane, cruel to residents and traumatizing to their families.

Ontario has yet to see the light.

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