TORONTO — Ontario must take urgent action to address the rising number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care, a group of over 200 doctors, researchers and advocates said Tuesday, calling the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”

In a letter to Premier Doug Ford’s government, the group said the province does not appear to have learned from deadly nursing-home outbreaks during the first wave of the pandemic, which led to almost 2,000 deaths. 

Instead, staffing shortages, poor infection control, and a delayed response to outbreaks continue to occur in the homes with deadly consequences, the group wrote.

“Due to the Ontario government’s inaction … LTC residents are at high risk of death from COVID-19,” the letter said. “In many circumstances, residents are also left without basic care, hygiene, food and water. This is a human rights violation.”

The group recommended a series of sweeping changes across the sector to help save lives as the pandemic continues.

Among them are calls to immediately bolster staffing, legislate a minimum standard of daily care for residents, and provide unrestricted access to family caregivers with personal protective equipment. 

The group also wants the province to begin the process of removing for-profit long-term care providers from the sector.

“Any home operator that does not comply with staffing ratios, infection control protocols, or commits any other major infraction which harms the residents should immediately and permanently lose their license and face a harsh penalty,” the group said.

The group also wants immediate military assistance where nursing-home staffing has “collapsed”.

The Long-Term Care Ministry did not immediately provide comment. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that military assistance has not currently been requested, as it was last year, because many nursing home have established partnerships with local hospitals.

“Hospitals are standing forward and helping the long-term care homes that are having problems, both in terms of supplying staff, as well as supplying PPE and whatever else they need,” she said.

Provincial figures show that 3,462 long-term care residents had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Premier Ford called on the federal government on Tuesday to bolster travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.

Ford said those restrictions should include mandatory testing at airports for all incoming international travellers.

He also said Canada should temporarily ban direct flights from countries were the new variants are detected, including Brazil and Portugal.

“For the federal government, please get mandatory testing,” Ford said. “It’s absolutely critical to protect our borders.”

A voluntary screening program at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport began Jan. 6 and has tested more than 6,800 travellers. The province said of those tests, 146 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

The government said Tuesday that 1.8 per cent of all COVID-19 cases are related to international travel. 

Ontario reported 1,740 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 63 more deaths linked to the virus.

It also said 9,707 more doses of a COVID-19 vaccine had been administered since the last daily update. 

A total of 295,817 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province so far.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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