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Plush toys and flowers are shown outside Residence Herron in the Montreal suburb of Dorval, on May 10, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The ability of privately operated elder-care facilities to withstand health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic was questioned Thursday as a Quebec coroner’s inquest concluded three weeks of hearings into the death of 47 residents at the Herron nursing home.

Relatives of three of the residents who died made submissions on Thursday that denounced the existence of for-profit homes like Herron, saying that its poor management and shoestring budget contributed to the neglect of those in its care.

Their comments came in the wake of testimony this week by Herron owner Samantha Chowieri, who acknowledged that her business wasn’t prepared for the pandemic storm that hit Herron at the end of March, 2020.

The inquest by Coroner Géhane Kamel is looking at the high death toll during the first wave of the pandemic at seven long-term care facilities, known as CHSLDs, in Quebec.

Though some large public CHSLDs suffered more fatalities, the tragedy at Herron, in Montreal’s West Island, was widely reported because of the troubling conditions in which residents were found, raising questions about the quality of care at private nursing homes.

Quebec inquest into Herron deaths hears residents were not transferred due to fears of COVID-19 spread

While Ms. Chowieri still maintained in her testimony this week that the local health authority aggravated the situation when it took over Herron in the spring of last year, she tearfully said that she wondered if she could have done better.

The inquest has heard that Herron was short-staffed because it paid workers less than public care homes. Its director, Andrei Stanica, was also doing double duty running a seniors’ residence owned by Ms. Chowieri’s family.

Herron had also not been able to replace its director of nursing care, who had left in January, 2020. Its nursing co-ordinator quit on March 20 of that year.

By March 27, when the first infected resident died, the only managers left were Mr. Stanica and Herron’s sales agent Tina Pettinicchi. Later that day, Mr. Stanica fell ill – eventually testing positive for COVID-19 – and Ms. Chowieri, who lived near Ottawa and only made monthly visits, had to get involved.

Ms. Kamel said Herron’s management structure wasn’t sturdy enough to resist the impact of the pandemic because it was down to three people: Ms. Chowieri, Mr. Stanica and Ms. Pettinicchi.

“You are right,” Ms. Chowieri replied.

Herron charged from $3,150 to $5,650 in monthly rent, the inquest heard.

“These institutions could not withstand the pressure test of COVID-19 because the nature of for-profit homes is to make a profit,” the family of Herron resident Olga Maciulevicius, who died at 91, said in a statement read at the inquest on Thursday.

“These profits are made by underpaying staff, hiring less staff using casual and part-time workers, and providing less equipment to meet the daily needs of their clients in an already flawed and stressed system of care.”

Peter Barrette, whose father Léon, 93, was among the first to die at Herron, said its management didn’t have the skills and experience to operate a long-term care home.

“If people want to run a business for profit, they can run and own a [seniors’ residence] or a hotel or a fast-food franchise – but not provide services to the most vulnerable and weakest members of our society,” he told the inquest.

While the proceedings adjourned after the families’ submissions on Thursday, Ms. Kamel said she would add three more days of hearings at the end of October.

The coroner said she wants to find out whether Herron employees abandoned their posts in mid-shift on March 29, 2020, as the situation at the nursing home spiraled out of control.

She said she will also view video-surveillance footage from the facility captured that month.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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