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A make-shift memorial is seen at the CHSLD Yvon-Brunet, a long-term care home, in Montreal, on April 13, 2020. 73 residents at the centre died during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

In the weeks before a deadly COVID-19 outbreak began at the Yvon-Brunet nursing home last year, employees who wore masks on their own initiative were ordered to remove them, even if it was their personal protective gear, a coroner’s inquest heard Tuesday.

The testimony at coroner Géhane Kamel’s inquest was at turns shocking or emotional as witnesses described events that led to the death of 73 residents at the Montreal long-term care centre during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

On Monday, the inquest had heard that at the Montreal Chinese Hospital, another nursing home that is part of the same health board, there had been no deaths from the novel coronavirus after employees started using masks and took precautions weeks before the pandemic became a concern in the rest of Quebec.

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Ms. Kamel is looking at the impact of the pandemic on Quebec elder-care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, when more than 4,000 seniors died.

Wearing procedural masks at Yvon-Brunet became mandatory on April 3, the same day the first case was confirmed among residents.

Pascale Dunlop, a head nurse on one of floors of the 185-bed facility, said managers worried there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment. Masks were kept under lock and key and only used when dealing with residents who were quarantined.

They also believed wearing masks gave a false sense of security, Ms. Dunlop added.

A few staffers showed up with their own masks, but Ms. Dunlop was instructed to order those employees to take them off. Otherwise, “everyone would then want to wear masks,” she said.

Her testimony was corroborated by another witness, a nurse whose name is under a publication ban.

The nurse testified that a colleague showed up with her own mask. “A supervisor went to see her and said, ‘No, you’re going to scare the residents.’”

One staffer who was told to remove his mask later became infected, the inquiry heard. “Don’t think I don’t feel guilty,” Ms. Dunlop said.

Eventually, 120 residents and 105 employees tested positive. The inquest is focusing this week on the death of one resident, 95-year-old Ephrem Grenier, who contracted COVID-19.

Mr. Grenier’s family has said that when they visited him the day before his death, he was in a dark, smelly room with diapers and incontinence pads left on the floor.

In her testimony, Ms. Dunlop said the bad smell might actually be dead residents. So many were dying that funeral homes were overwhelmed and sometimes it took three days before the bodies were removed from their rooms, she said.

Her turn in the witness box ended tensely as the inquest heard of an earlier clash between her and one of Mr. Grenier’s daughters, Sonia.

Relatives and caregivers had been barred from visiting nursing homes during the first months of the pandemic. At one point, Sonia Grenier came to a porch near the main entrance of the Yvon-Brunet home, to wave at her father while speaking to him on her cellphone.

Ms. Dunlop told the daughter to leave, threatening to call police. She said she was concerned that Ms. Grenier might infect another resident who was on the porch.

Another daughter, Johanne Grenier, told the inquest that the family was still marked by the incident. It was the last time Sonia Grenier, who was not at the inquest, saw her father before a traumatic end-of-life visit on April 11, when the family found him dazed and emaciated.

“We had to protect our people. I had strict orders. Maybe I was too rough, maybe. I am sorry,” Ms. Dunlop said.

“I’ll forward your words to my sister,” Johanne Grenier replied.

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