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Bureaucratic delays and frictions between Herron management and CIUSSS officials left the facility in chaos until the health authority took charge on April 10, 2020.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

A Quebec health official testified Monday that many deaths could have been avoided at the Herron nursing home if he had been asked to bring in replacement staff a week earlier.

Alexandre Mercier, head of human resources for the local health authority, known as CIUSSS, was appearing at coroner Géhane Kamel’s inquest into the deaths during the first wave of the pandemic of 47 elderly residents at Résidence Herron, a facility in Montreal’s West Island.

At the time, CIUSSS said it was taking over the management of Herron after discovering on March 29, 2020, that most of the staff either were quarantined or had abandoned their posts, leaving the neglected residents in squalid conditions.

However, bureaucratic delays and frictions between Herron management and CIUSSS officials left the facility in chaos until the health authority took charge on April 10.

Health officials, Herron staff clashed as situation got worse, Quebec coroner hears

Mr. Mercier testified that he was only asked on April 5 to intervene and start hiring Herron’s staff directly through CIUSSS. Jacques Ramsay, the inquest’s expert assessor, asked if it would have made a difference if Mr. Mercier had been involved a week earlier.

“There would have been a lot more staff in the previous week – we might have avoided a lot of deaths,” Mr. Mercier replied.

He had visited the facility as early as March 31, but was told not to go inside because of the strained relations between CIUSSS and Herron’s management. “In hindsight, I should have come in,” he said.

Another witness testifying Monday described how a placement agency had assigned two different orderlies at separate times under the same name. When the scheme was discovered, the man left precipitously, leading the witness to suspect that he was working illegally.

The inquest also heard differing testimony about an incident on April 10, where a woman’s body was left for hours in a room shared with her husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease.

An auxiliary nurse who testified last week described how, every few hours, the husband checked on his spouse and rediscovered that she had died. The nurse said it was a callous way to handle the death, since the staff could have wheeled the body to an empty room nearby.

Testifying Monday, Maria Nelson, a nursing supervisor hired by CIUSSS who was in charge that night, said staff couldn’t relocate the body because of the husband’s protests. “He kept saying she’s sleeping … he didn’t want us to remove her; he’d get aggressive.”

On that same day, Ms. Nelson received a phone call from Peter Wheeland, who asked about COVID-19 testing for his 87-year-old mother, Connie, a Herron resident.

Just two days prior, Quebec’s health minister at the time, Danielle McCann, had announced there would be systematic COVID-19 testing of all nursing-home residents and staff.

The inquest heard a recording of the phone call where Ms. Nelson, sounding impatient with Mr. Wheeland, told him that testing could only be done if approved by one of Herron’s regular physicians, Orly Hermon.

Mr. Wheeland asked why Dr. Hermon’s approval was needed since the CIUSSS was supposed to be in charge of the facility now. Ms. Nelson ended the conversation by promising that she would tell Dr. Hermon to phone him, but failed to ask Mr. Wheeland for his number.

Dr. Hermon previously testified at the inquest that nurses could request tests.

After the phone call, Connie Wheeland’s family decided to transfer her to Lakeshore General Hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19.

A Lakeshore nursing supervisor, Joséphine Lemy, testified that Herron relied on a placement agency that was run by an orderly who was also working simultaneously at the facility. Ms. Lemy said the orderly “was always on the phone, managing her business.”

Ms. Lemy and Mr. Mercier told the inquest about one orderly from the agency who showed up using the name “Ricardo.” They noticed he wasn’t the same person as another orderly who had worked at the residence previously under the same name.

When the second Ricardo was asked for his identification, he fled, only to reappear a few days later under another name, “Alberto,” they testified.

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