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Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care, seen here at Queen's Park on April 22, 2020, announced Tuesday that the government will launch the commission in September.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government will set up an independent commission to examine the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the province’s long-term care homes. But critics say the move falls short and want a full-scale public inquiry into why many homes had dozens of deaths while others halted outbreaks of the virus.

Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care, announced on Tuesday that the government will launch the commission in September, and finalize details over the next several months on the scope of the review and who will participate. She said a non-partisan, independent commission is the best way to conduct a thorough and expedited review, and added that time is of the essence.

“This is a global pandemic that has inflicted tremendous tragedy on our long-term care homes, many of them,” Ms. Fullerton, a medical doctor, told reporters. “And we need to get to the bottom of that.”

The novel coronavirus has hit long-term care homes in Canada disproportionately hard, accounting for 80 per cent of the 5,912 deaths across the country. Seniors’ residences in Quebec and Ontario have suffered the most. The federal government has sent the military into some of the hardest hit homes in Ontario and Quebec, after Mr. Ford and Premier François Legault asked for help with day-to-day operations, including co-ordinating medical care.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that he is the first provincial leader in Canada to “come out with my hand up, saying I want a commission.”

Working in long-term care these days is breaking my heart

The Ontario government has been under pressure to call a public inquiry into long-standing problems in long-term care homes, including chronic staff shortages, which the pandemic has laid bare. While the government would determine the focus of a public inquiry, those leading it would have broad powers to form their own conclusions and recommendations. The province has not yet spelled out the terms for its commission.

Labour leaders representing health care workers, opposition members at the provincial legislature and a lawyer who advocates for the elderly all said on Tuesday that families who lost loved ones deserve a public inquiry.

“How is this commission … going to help those families and my three members who died over this,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of the SEIU Healthcare, which represents 60,000 workers. “And why wait until September, when there’s a second wave of cases that everyone is predicting.”

So far, 1,408 residents of Ontario long-term care homes have died of COVID-19 as well as five staff members, according to the province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care. Three of the staff members were personal support workers who belonged to SEIU Healthcare.

Ms. Fullerton said the commission will make its findings public. “We can’t afford to wait longer,” she said. “Public inquiries can take years.”

The minister pointed out that an earlier public inquiry into the province’s long-term care system two took years to release its final report.

That inquiry, led by Eileen Gillese, a member of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, examined how the system failed to stop nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer from murdering eight of her elderly patients with lethal doses of insulin at two southwestern Ontario nursing homes. Justice Gillese, who heard from 50 witnesses over 39 days, released the inquiry’s final report, which was nearly 1,500 pages, last July.

Still, Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly in Toronto, said the Wettlaufer inquiry was “very limited” in its focus. Ms. Meadus represented a province-wide association of nursing-home residents’ councils at the inquiry.

Ms. Meadus said a full public inquiry – complete with live testimony and the cross-examination of witnesses – is necessary to figure out how some long-term care homes managed to halt their outbreaks after one or two cases, while others had dozens of deaths.

“So what was the difference in those care systems?” she asked. “What part did hospitals have to play? What part did government policies have to play in this? Because I don’t think we know the answer to that.”

One recommendation from Justice Gillese’s report that could have relevance to the handling of the pandemic involved staffing at long-term care homes. Justice Gillese recommended the government study whether to increase the number of nursing staff required for day, evening and night shifts at care homes.

Right now, only one registered nurse is required to be on site, no matter the size of the home or time of day.

Ms. Fullerton appointed a 10-member expert panel in February led by Arthur Sweetman, an economics professor at McMaster University who holds an Ontario Research Chair in health human resources, to look at the long-term care staffing issue.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who also called for a full public inquiry, said the commission would be little more than “a backroom process” controlled by the Progressive Conservative government. She said public inquiries have been held for tragedies that killed far fewer people than COVID-19 in nursing homes, including the SARS epidemic, which killed 44, and the Walkerton tainted-water scandal, which killed seven.

With a report from Laura Stone

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