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The province is dodging the truth on COVID-19 in long-term care

Posted: November 20, 2020

(November 19, 2020)

By: The Hamilton Spectator

Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's Minister of Long-Term Care, says LTC homes are in a ‘much, much’ better place than during the last wave. The evidence suggests otherwise.

On Monday, Ontario’s long-term-care minister, Merrilee Fullerton, assured Ontarians that in spite of COVID-19 spreading through long-term-care homes, they’re actually doing better than they did in the first wave of this pandemic.

Speaking at Queen’s Park, the minister summed up: “There’s no doubt that lessons have been learned from the first wave and the data shows our homes are doing much, much better.”

Really? On Tuesday, 26 of 32 new COVID-19 deaths were in care homes. The province says 678 nursing home residents have the virus. And 100 of the province’s 626 care homes have outbreaks.

Does that sound like “much, much better” to you? It doesn’t to us, either. And it doesn’t to many health experts.

Health experts like Dr. Amit Arya of McMaster University, who described the first wave in long-term care as “a horror movie” and who says now: “We really have not done anything close to what we should have done to prepare for the second wave.”

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, agrees. She has said in media reports: “It’s devastating … The numbers right now are just exploding.” She also says “we’re shaping up to have a worse second wave.”

Indeed, according to Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario: “The number of residents with COVID is increasing, the number of staff with COVID is increasing and the number of residents who die is increasing. How can anyone sleep well at night with that?”

It’s a good question. Notwithstanding Minister Fullerton’s claims to the contrary, it doesn’t seem as if Ontario’s retirement home care system is in a better place than it was during the first wave. It’s clear that the Ford government is concerned and has been trying to put improvements and protections in place, but the reality is that it started too late, and it had repeated warnings during and after the first wave.

The Registered Nurses’ Association, for example, asked the government to make investments in staffing with registered nurses, nurse practitioners, registered practical nurses and personal support workers in homes across Ontario. The government didn’t act. And so when the second wave hit, staffing levels were already at or below operative minimum, and that was before staff began to get sick and be absent.

The government’s own LTC commission, in its interim report on fixing the system, released a series of recommendations urgently calling for action on things like staffing levels and compensation. Fullerton said her department was “carefully reviewing” the recommendations.

This is all happening at the same time as a Toronto Star investigation reveals private LTC operation is such a lucrative business opportunity, private equity funds are being set up to cash in on the potential. That’s not surprising given the shortage of beds that continues to exist and our aging population.

But keep in mind this is specifically about private, for-profit LTC operations. In Ontario, for-profit homes account for a little more than half of the province’s long-term-care beds. But they also accounted for 70 per cent of COVID deaths in the first wave of the pandemic. According to a Star analysis, so far in the second wave for-profit homes have just under 80 per cent of the deaths.

So if you’re a wealthy investor, there’s money to be made in for-profit long-term care. What is less clear is whether the for-profit model, where the bottom line is always going to competing for the top priority, even over resident care, has a place in the long-term-care system. That the government isn’t even considering that is troubling.

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