TORONTO — The association representing most long-term care homes in Ontario came out in support of a public inquiry into the sector Saturday, but said more had to be done to support care homes in the interim as deaths continue to mount.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association said a review would solve long-standing issues with the provincial model for care homes, but the unprecedented threat of COVID-19 means action on personal protective equipment and staffing levels was required immediately.
“Public inquiries are important, but they take years,” said Donna Duncan, CEO of the OLTCA, in a press release.
“We need to focus on immediate solutions to protect our residents and the front-line heroes who care for them — then thoughtfully address the long-standing systemic issues COVID-19 has highlighted.”
Duncan said staffing levels were already low before the pandemic, but a lack of personal protective equipment has exacerbated the problem by leaving workers vulnerable.
She also called on the province to continue prioritizing testing in long-term care homes and allowing for staffing flexibility through emergency orders.
The request by the OLTCA, which represents about 70 per cent of the province’s care homes, comes as Ontario reported another 391 cases of COVID-19 and 33 deaths.
The increase in cases represents a daily growth rate of 1.8 per cent, compared to an average growth rate 1.6 per cent in the three previous days.
There is now a total of 22,313 confirmed cases, including 1,858 deaths.
Long-term care homes have taken the brunt of the impact from the pandemic, and the Ministry of Long-Term Care has reported that 1,360 resident deaths are related to COVID-19.
The Ministry of Long-Term Care report uses separate data from the overall province-wide COVID-19 statistics.
Merrillee Fullerton, the minister of long-term care, said earlier this month that a review would happen after the pandemic is through.
“Our gov has been clear: the system is broken. Long-term care has endured years of neglect,” Fullerton said on Twitter last week. “Once we emerge from this pandemic, we will get to the bottom of this.”
A spokeswoman for Fullerton noted that the province has taken an aggressive stance on testing and is providing same-day deliveries of PPE so staff can wear it at all times.
“Our ministry’s current sole focus is on fighting this virus and keeping residents and staff in long-term care homes safe. We are committed to working with our sector partners to protect our residents and staff and get through this together,” she said in an email.
The government has enacted several other measures to help the sector during the pandemic, including issuing an emergency order on Wednesday allowing it to temporarily replace management at some long-term care homes struggling to contain outbreaks.
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.
The province previously temporarily banned staff from working at multiple long-term care facilities for fear they were spreading the virus between them.
If the province goes ahead with a full inquiry into the long-term care sector, it won’t be the first.
In 2017, a public inquiry was launched into long-term care homes after nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and two of aggravated assault for her actions while working in the facilities.
She admitted to using insulin to kill her victims.
That inquiry focused on the circumstances that allowed Wettlaufer to commit her crimes undetected.
Meanwhile in Toronto, city officials were calling for increased financial support and testing for homeless shelters.
The Toronto Board of Health says the city has spent $200 million to open new shelter facilities and move homeless people into hotels, and is asking the province to foot part of the bill.
The board said the province also needs to allow for pre-emptive testing at shelters and other facilities for homeless people, similar to how testing is currently done in long-term care homes.
“The province needs to ramp up proactive testing in all congregate living sites to protect clients and staff, including shelters, respites and drop-ins,” said Toronto Coun. Joe Cressy.
“We also know that we need to invest in supportive and affordable housing solutions in order to truly tackle chronic homelessness.”
A spokesperson for The Ministry of Health said the province is working on expanding proactive testing now that it has nearly completed screening at long-term care homes.
“We are expanding testing in other shared living spaces, including retirement homes, homeless shelters and other group homes and institutions,” said Hayley Chazan in an email.
“It’s important to note that residents and staff living and working in homeless shelters have always been priority groups for testing, especially in the case of an outbreak.”
Chazan added that the province has provided Toronto with more than $39 million in funding for housing stability since the pandemic began.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2020.
Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press
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