Photo Georgina Post

By: Mike Anderson

The union representing workers at the River Glen Haven Nursing Home says Ontario doesn’t need another public inquiry into long-term care.

Instead, the government must take immediate steps to prevent further deaths in long-term care homes before a second wave of COVID-19 hits the province.

“There are many things the government could do immediately. You don’t see a call for a commission in Quebec. They recently announced they’re hiring 10,000 personal support workers (PSWs) into long-term care,” said Michael Hurley, CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions president.

“We don’t need each government to relive this as though it’s never been happened before. What we need is government to say this is unacceptable. And we’re going to do A, B, C, D, and E.

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We should be expecting a dramatic change on approach because this is only one wave of the coronavirus. And these people are very vulnerable in these settings. So we need to take some special measures to protect them.”

According to Mr. Hurley, Ontario should take the lead from Asian countries like Taiwan or Vietnam, or cities like Hong Kong, where there have been no COVID-19 deaths in long-term care.

“They treat this SARS virus the same as they treated the last one. So they treated it as a virus that could be airborne, and they use a higher level of precautions. Ontario was on track to do that until February when it downgraded its advice to say that this virus is only transmitted through the air during an aerosolizing procedure, like a intubation,” he said.

“Also, if there was an outbreak, like River Glen Haven, they wouldn’t let people with COVID-19 stay there. They would bring them immediately to the hospital and they would test everybody and anybody who was positive. They would not let people transmit the virus to others.”

This approach contrasts sharply with some of the directives issued by the province to deal with outbreaks in LTC homes.

Positive residents are currently cohorted within the LTC home, rather than hospitalized to prevent the spread of the virus, which may contribute to high mortality rates among LTC residents, especially in crowded LTC homes like River Glen Haven.

To date, there have been 1,606 reported deaths in Ontario’s long-term care homes, accounting for 64 per cent of Ontario’s COVID-19 deaths, despite LTCH residents representing less than 20 per cent of the positive cases in the province.

Mr. Hurley is also critical of the province’s directives on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

So far, 1,984 LTCH workers in Ontario have been infected by the virus, and five have died, according to public health data posted on Ontario.ca

Mr. Hurley believes many of these infections and deaths could have been avoided.

He said most LTC staff were forced to work in unsafe conditions because, unlike hospital settings, the province initially said that surgical masks were sufficient protection in long-term care settings.

He also said that his members, some of whom were openly appealing on social media for N-95 donations, were caught between a rock and hard place, as they could do little to pressure their employer to provide them with the appropriate level of PPE.

“This is a work environment where there’s a lot of coercion and discipline. A lot of people get fired in long-term care. A lot of people get written up. People are dependent on the employer for extra hours. So they go along with the homes that are not equipped with enough of this equipment, or there’s effective rationing of it,” he said.

While a worker has the right to turn down work that’s unsafe and to notify the Ministry of Labour, according to Mr. Hurley, in reality, this often doesn’t work out in the worker’s favour.

“In every instance, the Ministry of Labour backed up the employer and the worker was not provided with a higher level of equipment. So you’ve got as result, a workforce in long-term care with twice as many illnesses and as hospitals, and a lot of that has to do with access to protective equipment.”

Although RGH staff were eventually provided with N-95 masks, according to the province’s mandatory management order, they did not receive the proper fit training which is essential to prevent infection.

The order states that prior to Southlake’s intervention, RGH staff were not using PPE appropriately, and, in some cases, were “observed to be using multiple masks at a given time.”

“You need to be fit tested in order to be sure that there isn’t a leakage there. That’s important because if air can get in around the N-95 mask, then, so can the virus,” he said.

According to several sources, RGH staff were also asked by management to wear N-95 masks over extended periods, in order to conserve PPE supplies, which, according to Mr. Hurley, may have also contributed to a higher infection rate.

“They’re also not meant to be worn like that. They’re supposed to be used. And then, after you leave your room, disposed off. Because they are in theory contaminated with the virus.”

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