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A Globe and Mail story in May quoted military reports saying that residents died from dehydration and malnourishment at Downsview Long Term Care Centre and Hawthorne Place Care Centre.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The Canadian Armed Forces has dismissed reports from its own staff who said that residents at two Ontario nursing homes died of dehydration, and suggested that the “unsubstantiated” allegations stemmed from an “emotionally charged” witness statement.

The military says it cannot definitively comment on what caused the residents to die, because it did not conduct forensic investigations or autopsies into the fatalities, according to a subsequent review by the Ontario government into the reports.

The government’s review backs up the military’s conclusion. A dozen inspectors from the Ministry of Long-Term Care spent 70 days in the two homes between May and July, poring over the health records of residents who died during outbreaks of COVID-19 in 2020.

“Concerns were identified during the inspections in relation to dehydration and malnutrition,” says a copy of the review, which the government plans to release on Monday. “However, based on its thorough review, the [ministry] did not identify any resident whose death was a result of dehydration or malnutrition.”

The government’s findings stand in stark contrast to reports by the Forces personnel deployed to the two virus-stricken Toronto homes last year to provide humanitarian support, and by the ministry’s own inspectors, who documented numerous cases at one of the homes where residents who needed help eating and drinking failed to receive proper care.

A Globe and Mail story in May quoted military reports saying that residents died from dehydration and malnourishment at Downsview Long Term Care Centre and Hawthorne Place Care Centre.

At Downsview, the reports say, “26 residents died due to dehydration prior to the arrival of the CAF team due to the lack of staff to care for them. They died when all they needed was ‘water and a wipe down.’”

At Hawthorne Place, residents “are dying from non-COVID-19 causes more than they should be,” the reports say.

Tom Ionson, operations manager of military domestic operations in Ontario, says no official report supports concerns expressed by Forces personnel that dozens of residents died not from COVID-19 but from neglect and dehydration, according to an e-mail the Ontario government provided to The Globe.

“This has proven to be unsubstantiated,” he says in the e-mail to officials at the Ministry of Long-Term Care. “Likely this was pulled from an unofficial, unsupported and emotionally-charged witness statement.”

According to figures published by the Ontario government, 3,824 long-term care residents in the province have died of COVID-19, many of them alone in understaffed facilities. Downsview and Hawthorne Place were among the hardest-hit facilities during the first wave, with 65 and 51 deaths, respectively.

But no one is tracking whether causes other than the coronavirus pandemic hastened the deaths of residents as outbreaks spiraled out of control and staffing collapsed.

Quebec is the only province where the chief coroner has ordered public hearings into the disproportionate toll the coronavirus took on nursing home residents, including those who died of dehydration and neglect brought on by the chaos of infection and staff shortages.

In the absence of death investigations and autopsies elsewhere in Canada, home operators are not going to admit that people under their stewardship died of dehydration, said Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the University Health Network and Sinai Health System in Toronto.

“This is where these technicalities sadly allow everybody to save face and these issues continue to fester,” Dr. Sinha said in an interview. “We know that a number of basic needs were not being well met. That’s the real tragedy of all of this.”

Downsview comes in for the harshest criticism from ministry inspectors. The home failed to have a dietician assess the nutritional needs of 16 residents whose health deteriorated and who subsequently died, the inspection report says.

James Balcom, chief operating officer of GEM Health Care Group, a Halifax-based company that owns the for-profit home, said in an e-mail on Sunday that it has already taken steps to improve how care is delivered. “We respect the findings in this report of where Downsview came up short,” he said.

Both GEM and Hawthorne’s owner challenged the military reports in May, saying no residents died of dehydration. “This report from the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care confirmed what we have always maintained,” Mr. Balcom said on Sunday.

At Hawthorne, military personnel expressed concerns that residents were not fed and offered fluids during the COVID-19 outbreak, the inspection report says. The report singles out the case of one resident who was “eating and drinking poorly” after returning from a hospital stay. Inspectors found that the home did not assess the resident when their health worsened nor notify a physician before they died.

The home has put a plan in place to address issues highlighted in the inspection report, Nicola Major, a spokeswoman for Responsive Group Inc., the company that manages the for-profit home, said in an e-mail on Sunday. The ministry’s review “finalizes a very difficult and challenging chapter at Hawthorne,” she said.

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