Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he wants answers about how COVID-19 spread in the province’s long-term care homes, as his government launched a judge-led independent commission that will report on its findings by April 30.
Critics of the government, along with families who lost loved ones during the pandemic, say anything short of a full public inquiry is unacceptable. They say families would be better represented at a public inquiry and there would be more transparency because all documentation would be released.
Advocates are also urging the government to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 by hiring more staff and stockpiling personal protective equipment immediately for nursing homes.
Mr. Ford, alongside Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton, released details of the long-awaited commission on Wednesday. The three-member panel will be chaired by Ontario Superior Court Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco, who served as the province’s lead counsel during the Walkerton tainted water inquiry 20 years ago.
Mr. Ford told reporters he would “take up” any of the commission’s recommendations, but did not say whether they would be binding. Ms. Fullerton said the report would be released publicly.
“I need answers. I want answers. You know I want this commission to move forward,” Mr. Ford said at Queen’s Park.
As of Wednesday, 1,844 residents of long-term care homes and eight staff members had died of the virus in Ontario.
The other members of the commission’s panel are Jack Kitts, who retired in June as president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Hospital, and Angela Coke, a former deputy minister in the Ontario government. The commissioners will be able to compel people to give evidence, issue summons and hold public meetings.
“We have a clear mandate to investigate how and why COVID-19 spread in long-term care homes, what was done to prevent the spread, and the impact of key elements of the existing system on the spread,” the commissioners said in a statement.
Cathy Parkes’s 86-year-old father, Paul Parkes, died at Orchard Villa long-term care facility in Pickering, east of Toronto, on April 15. Ms. Parkes is among a group of families that is calling for a public inquiry into the tragedy, arguing it would have more teeth than the commission.
“I have a lot of concerns,” Ms. Parkes said on Wednesday. “I would like to see as much public input and as much transparency as possible.”
NDP MPP Gurratan Singh said the independent commission’s structure “simply isn’t good enough,” because it allows for private meetings, potentially keeps documents confidential, and will not investigate for-profit versus non-profit homes.
“An inquiry will have far more impact than this backroom non-binding commission, it’ll have a full scope under the Public Inquiries Act, versus a limited commission,” he said.
He also said the government needs to immediately hire thousands of full-time personal support workers and front-line health workers in homes, which are chronically understaffed. The government is set to release a report on Thursday about staffing levels in homes.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents 70 per cent of the province’s 626 long-term care homes, said it is encouraged the commission will look at systemic challenges, including staffing, infrastructure and labour relations. But CEO Donna Duncan called on the government to prepare for a potential second wave, including adding new infection-prevention and -control specialists in homes.
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said a commission is no longer necessary and that the government should instead focus on increasing staffing levels and ensuring a six-month supply of personal protective equipment in long-term care homes in preparation for a second wave of the virus.
“We do not believe that we can wait until April to fix the problem,” she said. “Whatever the commission will do, with all due respect, much of what went wrong is well known.”
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