The top administrator at a Halifax nursing home besieged by one of Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks concedes the crisis that has infected 316 people and killed 35 residents is far from over.
Northwood Manor, a 485-bed long-term care facility in Halifax’s North End, is ground zero in Nova Scotia’s fight against the coronavirus.
The not-for-profit facility has faced some criticism over its handling of the outbreak, including questions around delays in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, reorganizing the facility to prevent the spread of the virus and moving residents out of shared rooms with someone who tested positive.
On Wednesday, the facility’s president and CEO Janet Simm said “it’ll be quite some time” before Northwood is able to overcome the crisis. More than 100 staff remain off work because of exposure to the virus or compromised health that makes them afraid to work, and the nursing home is scrambling to separate residents into private rooms – acknowledging that those shared rooms helped inflame the outbreak.
“With that many staff off, it’s one of our biggest challenges at this time,” Ms. Simm said, speaking on a day when the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia approached 1,000.
“It’s easy to look back at the evidence as it emerges and say ‘we should have.' Northwood was on par or ahead of the province’s directives on long-term care. We responded based on the emerging evidence that was coming forward.”
Unlike some long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec, the nursing home will not call on the military for help. There are enough nurses and other acute care workers able to help since the province’s hospitals have not been overrun by the virus, she said.
With all but 20 of the nursing home’s residents having signed do-not-resuscitate orders, and with many in frail condition, it’s expected more deaths will come. Still, there are some reasons for optimism – there were no new residents who tested positive on Wednesday, although two staff members did. Nearly 90 residents and staff have recovered from the virus.
Ms. Simm defended the nursing home’s track record, and said it was acting on the best information it had at the time. Northwood ordered staff to start wearing masks more than a week before the province made them mandatory, Ms. Simm said.
“Hindsight would have benefited Northwood, hindsight would have benefited Nova Scotia, hindsight would have benefited the world,” she said. “This thing was in here before PPE was ever applied.”
Unifor, which represents 450 workers at Northwood, says PPE was withheld in the early stages of the outbreak because the nursing home, like many others in the country, was concerned about its supply running out.
Linda MacNeil, the union’s Atlantic regional director, says that’s convinced her Canada needs a reliable, domestic supply of protective gear for future outbreaks so nursing homes never have to worry about running out.
“If we could turn back time, and have the proper amount of supplies, I think it would be a different situation," she said.
Infected residents should have also been separated more quickly from the rest of Northwood’s population, Ms. MacNeil added, although she acknowledges the nursing home didn’t initially have any place to put them. Healthy residents have since been moved into a hotel.
“Right from the beginning, there should have been the distinction between COVID positive and negative residents. They should never have been sharing the same room," she said.
Still, the union director said the time will come to probe Northwood’s response to this pandemic. The nursing home was doing the best it could in the face of an overwhelming outbreak, Ms. MacNeil said.
Ms. Simm said she’s open to any review of the outbreak, which started when an asymptomatic staff member brought COVID-19 into the building, that might lead to policy changes.
“We want to make sure Northwood learns, and the entire world learns, from our experience so we can prevent it from happening in the future,” she said.
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