Ontario’s long-term care minister defended her government’s response Monday to COVID-19 outbreaks in the province’s care homes, including one in which eight people have died — saying the province has learned lessons from the first wave of the virus in the spring.
In her first public comments since the outbreak at Rockcliffe Care Community in Scarborough was revealed, Merrilee Fullerton answered criticism that her ministry hasn’t done enough to prevent a second wave of infections. She told reporters at Queen’s Park that medical officers of health can take quicker action than the province under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
“Our measures take somewhat longer. Time is of the essence,” Fullerton said on Monday. “I believe medical officers of health have that ability and should address that as they see necessary.”
Her comments come after the company that owns Rockcliffe Care Community, Sienna Senior Living, reported the outbreak that has left more than half of its residents infected with COVID-19.
On Monday, Sienna Senior Living revealed that eight residents have died at Rockcliffe since the outbreak was declared on Nov. 2. A total of 135 residents and 63 staff members have tested positive. Five resident cases have been marked as resolved and another 13 staff members have been cleared to return to work.
The home, which has 204 beds, has 165 residents.
The infections and deaths come months after the first wave of the novel coronavirus swept through the province’s long-term care homes, accounting for more than 62 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province.
Fullerton expressed condolences to families of those who died. “Every measure needs to be taken,” she said.
But the minister also said 92 per cent of Ontario long-term care homes do not have any COVID-19 cases among residents.
“There’s no doubt that lessons have been learned from the first wave and the data shows our homes are doing much, much better. We understand the really challenging situations are in areas where there is higher incidence and Toronto is evidence of that,” she said.
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Fullerton added that the government could improve testing in long-term care homes.
“The testing isn’t perfect. There is a situation where one person getting in with a COVID-19 positive situation will wreak havoc. We’ve got the rapid tests coming. They are not coming as fast as I would like to them to come,” she said.
Dozens protest at Queen’s Park over government bill
Earlier on Monday, dozens of family members of long-term care home residents protested on the lawn of Queen’s Park, saying they are worried that the tragedy of the first wave could repeat itself in the second wave.
Maureen McDermott, whose 93-year-old mother has lived in long-term care for two years, said for-profit homes value money instead of people and the result is that residents have been “grossly” neglected. Her mother, who has dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, tested positive for COVID-19 in May.
“We can’t do this again,” she said.
McDermott said the government should hold “bad apples” accountable, and scrap Bill 218 — legislation introduced in October that would provide liability protection to various businesses, non-profits and workers against lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposure. It passed third reading on Monday.
Health-care system learned from 1st wave, expert says
Meanwhile, Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease physician at Sinai Health System, said on Monday the health care system did learn from the first wave, but it made mistakes as well.
“We underestimated how challenging preventing and managing outbreaks was going to be and we didn’t do enough work to make sure that people in long-term care were adequately protected,” McGeer said.
Now, she said, staff members are being screened every two weeks, there is more careful screening of residents for symptoms, staff are paying more attention to minor symptoms and staying home when sick, and the system has worked to reduce the number of people in rooms with four beds.
There is also a better and more stable supply of personal protective equipment.
“There are lots of things that are better, but there is no question that we are still seeing some very large outbreaks in which many residents and staff of long-term care facilities are developing illness,” she said.
As well, she said, there wasn’t enough education about infection prevention and control, the system didn’t pair hospitals with homes fast enough and it could have done more to support the long-term care home workforce.
“There were things that we chose not to do because they were expensive and people thought maybe we could get away with it,” she said.
Now in the second wave, once an outbreak starts, homes are having trouble preventing ongoing transmission, she said.
McGeer said an effective way to prevent infections is to have all staff in long-term care homes isolate themselves from the community but she acknowledges they would have to be well compensated for that isolation.
She also said the rule that staff can only work at one facility applies only if they do not work for an agency.
“We created a base rule and that has probably some good, but we didn’t make sure it applied all the time to every circumstance,” she said. “Staffing in long-term care is really difficult.”
The system needs a “cadre” of people who can help long-term care homes in trouble, like B. C. has done, she said..
“We could put together those teams,” she said.