TORONTO — Ontario issued a new emergency order on Wednesday allowing it to temporarily replace management at some long-term care homes struggling to contain COVID-19 outbreaks, but the province’s health minister said there are no immediate plans to use the sweeping tool.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the new measure is meant to strengthen protections for vulnerable seniors in those facilities and ensure the province can move rapidly in case a home needs urgent help.

Elliott said thus far long-term care homes have co-operated with hospitals, which have provided some resources and supervision, but should a home resist that aide the province can invoke this order.

“The making of this emergency order doesn’t mean that we’re going to do anything with it right now,” she said. “It’s just a tool in our toolbox to use if we need it so that we can move in rapidly if there’s some care homes that continue to have problems and are resistant to having any assistance.”

According to the latest government data, more than 1,200 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19 in the province, and 180 homes have outbreaks of the virus.

The order allows the province to step in if a facility has a high number of infections or deaths, or if it’s facing a staffing shortage. The province said the appointed manager could be any person, corporation or hospital.

But Elliott said that the wording of the order does not mean that control of more homes will be handed over, even temporarily, to for-profit corporations.

“What we would anticipate is that there would be more hospital involvement with long-term care,” she said. “A hospital is a corporation as well.”

Last week, the government asked facilities with outbreaks to come up with a plan to stabilize the virus’s spread within their walls. That followed the province calling in members of the Canadian Forces to help in some homes facing staffing shortages.

The president of the Service Employees International Union Healthcare, which represents workers in long-term care home, said the government’s emergency order should have been invoked weeks ago and used without delay.

“It’s disappointing for (Elliott) to say if we need to use it, we will use it,” Sharleen Stewart said. “I could list 10 homes where she could use it immediately.”

The CEO of the CanAge, a national seniors advocacy group, welcomed that emergency order, but said the Ford government should have issued it several weeks ago, when other provinces such as Quebec and British Columbia made the move.

“What we have seen with this government is that they say ‘no’ for a long period of time, then they take a half-step, but they don’t implement it in a timely fashion,” Laura Tamblyn Watts said.

Opposition critics said the measure comes far too late to respond to the outbreaks that have spread throughout the province’s homes, an accusation Premier Doug Ford denied.

“We’re going to respectfully disagree about slow to respond,” Ford said. “We’re responding rapidly day by day and through the advice of our chief medical officer.”

Ontario reported 329 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 40 more deaths. That brings the province to a total of 21,236 cases, including 1,765 deaths and 15,845 cases that have been resolved. The new cases represent an increase of 1.6 per cent over the previous day.

Hospitalizations dropped slightly, along with the numbers of people in intensive care and on ventilators. There were 15,137 tests completed in the previous day, with almost 13,400 still under investigation. 

The government has pledged to do 16,000 tests per day by now, with an eventual goal of 20,000 per day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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