Since the early days of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, we’ve known that seniors are one of the most vulnerable groups susceptible to the virus — both due to the possibility of preexisting conditions as well as age-related weakened immune systems.
Seniors now account for almost half of the more than 700 COVID-19 related deaths across Canada, several of them in long-term care homes.
In Ontario, 89 outbreaks have been reported in long-term care homes. So far, there are 741 residents and 430 staff members with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in those homes and there have been at least 120 deaths.
How these homes have been operating thus far is a contributing factor to the spread of COVID-19 and consequently to those high numbers.
Workers at long-term care homes are often hired part-time and given no benefits, forcing them to work in multiple homes to make ends meet.
By now, we know enough about how COVID-19 spreads to know that this situation makes it almost inevitable that the virus will travel from home to home with the workers.
On Monday, Minister of Health Christine Elliott confirmed that workers going from home to home, in part, caused COVID-19 to spread in the long-term care system even after the state of emergency was declared in the province and homes were locked down.
The numbers speak for themselves:
- Pinecrest Nursing Home, Bobcaygeon, ON – 29 deaths
- Seven Oaks, Scarborough, ON – 22 deaths
- Village of Humber Heights, Etobicoke, ON – 7 deaths
- Chartwell Gibson Long Term Care Residence, North York, ON – 5 deaths
- Eatonville Care Centre, Etobicoke, ON – 25 deaths
- Lynn Valley Care Centre, Vancouver, B.C. – 8 deaths
- Residence Herron, Dorval, QC – at least 5 of the 31 deaths since March 13 were related to COVID-19
Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of advocacy group CanAge, says the high death rate among seniors was predicted early and the country has failed them.
“We saw what happened in Italy, we saw what happened in Spain. We have known what was going to come and we really didn’t take the steps that we needed to across this country,” she tells CityNews. “We knew it was going to happen. We just chose not to do anything about it.”
Tamblyn adds that some provinces have been proactive in taking steps to protect seniors, while others have simply let it slide.
British Columbia has made it mandatory for long-term care workers to work in a single home and have plans to compensate them financially for the loss of income.
But despite repeated assurances of an “iron ring” around long-term care in the province, there have been no concrete steps to limit workers to a single long-term care facility in Ontario.
Tamblyn says the province may have recommended that such workers, who she calls underpaid and “precarious,” work only at a single location, but there has been no support to make it possible for them to do so.
“When we’re asking these precarious workers to stay in one place, you need to give them a wage subsidy that allows them to do that. Ontario has not done that,” she says.
Minister Elliott confirms that the province’s chief medical officer of health “strongly recommends” that workers limit themselves to one home, “with the hope that they will be able to increase their hours” in order to make up for any wages lost from multiple jobs.
“It sounds like common sense,” said Premier Doug Ford. “You don’t want people going from home to home to home.”
Ford says the province is looking into a program to top up long-term care workers’ wages in conjunction with the federal government.
Tamblyn adds that the issue is further exacerbated by the fact that long-term care workers are not provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) despite the hands-on nature of their jobs.
Coupled with going to multiple homes, it’s a recipe for disaster. She says if they are not provided medical-grade PPE, “there will be more tragedy.”
Tamblyn summarizes that in order to stem the spread of COVID-19 in long term care homes, three things need to be made mandatory immediately:
- ensuring workers can work at a single location and earn a proper living wage
- ensuring workers have medical grade PPE
- testing all residents and workers at all long-term care and retirement homes for COVID-19.
“There has to be a fundamental shift in how we manage seniors care in this country,” she says. “If one good thing comes out of this, let it be that.”