TORONTO — Inspectors refused to go into long-term care homes in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because they feared for their safety, prompting the government to call in the military, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday.

Some of the inspectors were carrying out inspections by phone in April because they were afraid of contracting the novel coronavirus, said the premier, who has been facing fierce criticism over the province’s handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in seniors homes where nearly 1,400 residents have died.

“They aren’t medical professionals, so I understand,” Ford said. “But I’m not going to continue taking bullets for something — there was no control that we had when the unions refused to go in.”

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union denied Ford’s statement, saying Ministry of Long-term Care managers told the workers not to enter the facilities.

“We never told our members not to go into long-term homes,” union president Warren “Smokey” Thomas said in a statement. “There was never one work refusal.”

Thomas also said Thursday that a letter he sent to the premier in April, which Ford’s office made public but never responded to, raised concerns about the poor quality of care to residents in some long-term care homes as well as the high risk for inspectors entering those facilities.

In his letter, Thomas also outlined concerns he said inspectors had been hearing from front-line staff for some time.

“Residents are not receiving the care that they need in some of these homes,” he wrote. “We know that private long-term care home providers never had a plan for this level of illness within their facilities. And that’s the inherent issue with privatization.”

Thomas wrote there were only 164 inspectors to support the province’s 626 homes, calling for increased staffing levels and a plan to protect their health.

The province called in military assistance last month for five long-term care homes hardest hit by COVID-19. 

In a report released earlier this week, the Canadian Armed Forces alleged the conditions in those homes were horrific. It said members had observed residents crying for help for hours, cockroach infestations, bleeding infections and aggressive feeding.

The government said Wednesday it was taking over management of four of the five homes and would conduct “extremely rigorous” inspections of those facilities as well as random spot checks at homes across the province.

On Thursday, Ford slammed the corporate leadership of some of the province’s for-profit homes, asking them to put people ahead of the bottom line or his government would hold them accountable.

“If they want to be greedy and make money, then get out of the business,” he said. “Go find something else to do. Don’t put people’s lives in jeopardy.”

Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said 19 Ontario long-term care homes are still considered “red” or “high risk” but would not say if the province will identify them publicly.

“If you really look at the dynamic nature of what’s happening in our homes, our homes are shifting,” she said, adding their status can change daily.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should release the list so that families can know which homes are struggling.

“(Premier) Ford needs to do the right thing, stop concealing the facts, and make the list of ‘red’ long-term care homes public and accessible online for families, experts and local decision-makers to see,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 383 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, and 34 more deaths. The new cases represented a jump after several consecutive days of fewer than 300 new cases.

It brings the provincial total to 26,866, an increase of 1.4 per cent over the previous day. The total includes 2,189 deaths and 20,673 resolved cases.

The number of tests reported also jumped to 17,615, from 15,133 the previous day.

Meanwhile, the province’s fiscal watchdog said the government’s $17-billion pandemic action plan would actually provide just $13.5 billion in COVID-19 support.

The Financial Accountability Officer said the package included $3.5 billion in new health sector spending and electricity price mitigation that was not directly related to pandemic response.

A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Rod Phillips said the province’s COVID relief plan includes additinal funding for hopsitals and electricity rate relief to keep prices stable.

“Healthcare funding and electricity price relief – especially with people working from home – are incredibly important aspects of our action plan and make a real difference to people,” Emily Hogeveen said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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