According to federal data, almost half of all COVID-19 deaths – as of 832 on Monday – occurred in nursing homes.
“We recognize the terrible and tragic stories that have come out of seniors’ residences and long-term care facilities across the country,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday afternoon. “We know we have to do more. “
In Ontario, where 114 long-term care facilities are now facing COVID-19 outbreaks, three of the homes having reported more than 20 deaths each, Premier Doug Ford has called the situation a “wildfire” , promising to distribute teams in hospitals to tackle the problem.
“My top priority right now is getting the troops and the resources on this front,” he said in his daily press briefing on Tuesday.
While in Quebec, where the province calls the situation of 41 long-term care homes “critical” and 1,250 employees are on sick leave due to illness or potential exposure to the virus, the Prime Minister François Legault made a desperate appeal to healthcare workers.
“I ask everyone available to come and help us,” he said. “I appeal to your sense of duty to help us protect the most vulnerable. “
But these calls to action are met with skepticism by some experts and advocates who argue that the country’s retirement homes were obvious danger zones for COVID-19 and should have been better protected.
“We saw it coming”
“It was not only predictable, it was expected. We saw it coming to Italy. We saw it coming to Spain, not to mention what was going on in Asia. And we knew that people in long-term facilities would be left without the care they need, ”says Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization.
“There is a failure of leadership at all levels of government. “
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Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician in Toronto and a member of the Women’s College Research Institute, says the current crisis reveals all the weaknesses of an elderly care system that has suffered from decades of neglect.
“This is nothing new,” he told CBC News. “It just took a global pandemic to find the problems that affect almost every aspect of the sector. “
One of these flaws, said Stall, is the design of dated facilities, where residents often share rooms or are crammed into common areas, thereby increasing the likelihood of virus transmission. Another is the low wages and meager benefits available to workers.
“There are chronic problems with understaffing,” he said. “Many of them work part-time and have no paid sick leave. And that forces them to work in multiple facilities, which contributes to the spread. “
The governments of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador have already told staff that they can only work in one establishment during the crisis. Ontario announced plans to enact a similar emergency rule on Tuesday.
Over the long weekend, the federal government has released a host of new guidelines for long-term care facilities, including improved cleaning, mandatory staff medical exams, and physical distance to meal times. But even that is unlikely to stop the rapid spread of the new coronavirus, says Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health in Toronto and chief researcher at the National Institute on Aging.
150,000 people in rest homes
Sinha says the coronavirus epidemic appears to expose “unique systemic vulnerabilities” within Canada’s long-term care system – a patchwork of public and private homes, all governed by rules and regulations that differ from one province to province.
Resident and staff testing for the virus remains sporadic, while long-term care workers have limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and less training on how to use it properly, note he.
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“There are a lot of people in the system right now who don’t feel confident,” says Sinha. “They don’t want to work in a house where there is an epidemic because they are not sure if they are going to be protected. “
According to the Canadian Long Term Care Association, more than 150,000 people live in specialized care centers across Canada. Quebec alone has 40,000 residents in its 440 licensed homes, while Ontario has 628. And the vast majority of clients are both elderly and frail.
A 2019 survey of Ontario nursing homes found that 76% of residents had heart or circulatory diseases, while 64% had been diagnosed with dementia and 21% had had a stroke.
Longtime volunteer Tom Carrothers of the Family Council Network 4 Advocacy, an Ontario organization dedicated to the fight for the rights of long-term care patients, says families are terrified of what is to come. Forbidden to visit their relatives, they also have trouble extracting information from homes.
“They are just worried that they are not getting the care they need right now and so many staff and residents are very sick,” he said.
Yet Carrothers hopes that something positive will eventually come out of the COVID-19 tragedy, and that governments will finally take action to address the many weaknesses of the long-term care system.
I think there will be changes because it hits so many people across the province as well as the country, “he said. I can guarantee you that groups like ours will be sure to move it forward. ”
Tamblyn Watts offers a list of specific actions that Canadian governments must take immediately to address the current crisis and its underlying causes: a vast expansion of testing, more PPE, and most importantly, a fully coordinated and national strategy long-term funded – long-term care.
“About a month ago, but every day counts,” she said. “These are not numbers. These are people who are neglected, people who die. They have names. They have families. And so everything we do counts. “