A Canadian military report released on Tuesday chronicles horrific conditions at five long-term care homes in Ontario, ranging from poor infection control practices to the neglect and abuse of residents.
The Ontario government said Tuesday it would send inspectors from the Ministry of Long-Term Care into the seniors’ residences to investigate the military’s allegations. But critics said members of Premier Doug Ford’s government should have been aware of long-standing problems at the homes well before the military stepped in.
In their report, the Canadian Armed Forces describe one home using narcotics to sedate residents who are “agitated and difficult” over being confined to their rooms during the pandemic lockdown. “But when you talk to them,” the report says, “they just say they’re ‘scared and feel alone like they’re in jail.’ ”
Two seniors’ residences are infested with cockroaches and leave residents in soiled diapers, the report says. Staff in one of the homes take up to two hours to respond to their cries for help. And a third home is force-feeding residents, causing audible choking.
Mr. Ford told reporters he didn’t know the “full extent” of what was happening in the homes until he read the military’s report on Monday. Mr. Ford said the results of an investigation by the coroner will be shared with police to “look into any possible criminal charges.”
“It’s shocking that this can happen here in Canada” Mr. Ford said. “It’s gut wrenching."
The federal government deployed the military to homes in Ontario and Quebec in late April to provide humanitarian relief and medical support at the request of the two provinces. The military is also expected to produce a report detailing the problems witnessed at 28 Quebec elder-care centres.
The five homes in Ontario have been hit hard by the coronavirus: To date, a total of 217 residents have died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. All but one of the homes are owned by private, for-profit companies.
The military says it wrote the 15-page report to ensure that its observations do not go unnoticed. “It is with a heavy heart that I bring this to your attention on behalf of the government of Canada,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says in a letter attached to the report.
Mr. Ford said he asked the Canadian military to extend its mission in the homes for another 30 days. Asked why it took the Canadian Armed Forces to shine a light on the practices that compromised the frail elderly, Mr. Ford cited the military’s 24/7 presence, saying they were able to detect things that inspectors could not by spending a few days in a home.
“You need someone very transparent, like the military, to go in there and say, here are the goods, as ugly and as heartbreaking as it is, here it is. That’s where you get the real answers,” he said.
Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care, said the COVID-19 pandemic “tipped our homes over the brink,” when asked why previous inspections by her ministry did not uncover the problems documented by the military.
A Globe and Mail investigation revealed that the Ministry of Labour, which is responsible for ensuring that employers comply with workplace health and safety standards, also failed to detect problems. The ministry has routinely inspected seniors’ homes by phone rather than in person during the pandemic.
Mr. Ford said the tragic situation in the province’s nursing homes serves as a wake-up call to reform the long-term care system, which he said has suffered from decades of neglect.
The shortcomings identified by the military are not limited to the five homes, Mr. Ford said, adding that he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday to ask for federal funding to do a “deep dive” into the operations of all the province’s long-term care homes and called for national standard operating procedures.
Mr. Trudeau said he assured Mr. Ford that Ottawa would be there to support the province as they deal with this situation. “I read the report in full yesterday,” he said. “It is deeply disturbing. There are things in there that are extremely troubling. We need to take action.”
Two of the homes operating with help from the military – Eatonville Care Centre and Hawthorne Place Care Centre – are owned by the same company, Rykka Care Centres.
Both homes issued statements, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most difficult challenge they have ever faced. In addition to staff who tested positive for the virus, said Eatonville executive director Evelyn MacDonald, “some staff did not come to work due to personal health reasons, and those who remained were overwhelmed by the pressures brought on by COVID-19.”
Gail Coburn, executive director of Hawthorne, said all residents are now free of the virus. “We have now turned the corner.”
Another home is Orchard Villa in Pickering, where 69 residents have died of the virus. The office of the chief coroner is investigating the death of a resident at the home who, according to the military’s report, choked to death while being fed lying down. A spokeswoman for the coroner said the office’s involvement in relation to the military’s findings is limited to this one case.
It took the provincial government far too long to understand the gravity of the situation at Orchard Villa, said Cathy Parkes, whose 86-year-old father Paul Parkes died at the home on April 15. Ms. Parkes said she and other residents’ family members have been writing to the Premier, his cabinet ministers and MPPs for weeks.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that it had to get to that point,” said Ms. Parkes, who has filed a lawsuit against the home and its owner. “I wish that it didn’t take the military to do a report for Doug Ford to have listened to what we were saying.”
Orchard Villa did not respond to a request for comment. The other two homes are Altamont Care in Toronto and Holland Christian Homes in Brampton.
“To deliver the level of care that our seniors deserve, the staffing challenges we face in the long-term care sector must be addressed,” said Natalie Gokchenian, a spokesperson for Sienna Senior Living, Altamont’s owner.
Ken Rawlins, CEO of Holland Christian, said the situation at the home has stabilized to the point where the military feels it can redeploy elsewhere. “Like others, including our political leaders, we were shocked and dismayed at some of the conditions identified in this report,” he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford and Ms. Fullerton should have known about the “horrific conditions” at the homes, and called on Ms. Fullerton to resign.
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents 60,000 workers, said her union has for months been raising concerns about COVID-19 in long-term care homes, including staffing issues, and called on the government in March to take over facilities in crisis.
“Why does it take the armed forces to confirm everything that we have said to this government?” she said.
Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses Association, said she, too, has long been raising concerns with the government about long-term care. In April, the ONA sought a court order to compel three long-term care homes owned by Rykka Care Centres – including Hawthorne Place and Eatonville – to comply with provincial infection control and health and safety standards.
“We need the public to continue to pressure the government to act. We don’t have time here,” Ms. McKenna said.
As of Monday, 1,538 deaths have been reported in long-term care homes by the Ministry of Long-Term Care, along with 1,335 staff infections. Six staff members have also died.
Ms. McKenna said she believes for-profit long-term care plays a role in the crisis, and more fulsome inspections are required.
Mr. Ford said calling a full public inquiry into the long-term care system remains an option.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup
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