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George Morrison, a resident of Orchard Villa nursing home who died earlier this month, is pictured on his 95th birthday with his daughter, June Morrison. Ms. Morrison asked Ontario’s chief coroner to investigate her father’s death because of her concerns that he was not being properly fed and cared for.Courtesy of June Morrison

Coroners are investigating the deaths of a number of residents of Ontario nursing homes who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic, including at least one man whose daughter believes he died in part because of low staffing levels.

George Morrison, who lived at Orchard Villa in Pickering, Ont., which has the province’s worst outbreak, died a week after he was sent to hospital with apparent anorexia, dehydration, a urinary tract infection and symptoms of COVID-19, said his daughter June Morrison.

Ms. Morrison asked Ontario’s chief coroner to investigate her father’s death because of her concerns that he was not being properly fed and cared for because of the home’s low staffing levels during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I promised my dad I’d right the wrongs and his body can talk after his death, it can talk, and that’s why I was adamant about it,” she said. "This body can give us something. Right or wrong, it’ll correct any misconceptions.”

Chief coroner Dirk Huyer confirmed his office is investigating Mr. Morrison’s death and said “a number of investigations" are under way into the deaths of long-term care residents that meet the criteria for such reviews, which include deaths that appear to be from unnatural causes, natural deaths that occur suddenly or unexpectedly, or cases where there are concerns about the care provided before death.

“We have a legislative mandate to investigate deaths where there’s a public safety concern, and we, on a case-by-case basis, would get involved in cases where we think there’s an investigation required,” he said in an interview.

Dr. Huyer, who said he did not know how many long-term care death investigations have been launched, said it is too early to determine if inquests will be held.

Orchard Villa has had Ontario’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak. As of last Thursday, 71 residents of the 233-bed facility had died, according to government figures. Late last month, the military began helping to care for the home’s residents and the regional medical officer of health sent in a hospital team to lead the facility’s response to the outbreak.

During video calls with Mr. Morrison in the days before he died on May 3, his daughter says she was horrified by his weight loss. She said her father, who was 95 and tested positive for COVID-19, typically had a hearty appetite but needed help eating because of his dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Ms. Morrison filed a lawsuit alleging negligence and breach of contract by Orchard Villa and its owner, Southbridge Care Homes Inc., in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Friday. The allegations have not been tested in court.

Jason Gay, executive director of Orchard Villa, declined to comment on Mr. Morrison’s case but said the facility is focused on residents’ health and safety. He said the home will respond to Ms. Morrison’s allegations in due course through the legal process.

“Our most important responsibility is our duty of care to the people in our home," he said in an e-mail. “We called on our partners in government and health care early and often for help, and we are extremely grateful that they answered our call.”

Jane Meadus, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, welcomed news that coroners are conducting death investigations for some long-term care residents.

“The coroner’s office is clearly significantly concerned about what is going on in long-term care and whether or not these deaths were preventable even within the COVID outbreak [and] whether or not things can be changed for the future,” she said.

Long-term care facilities in Ontario have been ravaged by COVID-19, with at least 1,320 deaths of residents as of last Thursday, according to government figures.

The City of Pickering passed a unanimous motion last week urging the Ontario government to investigate the outbreak and deaths at Orchard Villa and other long-term care facilities. It made the move amid calls for a public inquiry into how the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was allowed to wreak such havoc inside nursing homes.

The provincial government has promised to “review” the situation in long-term care, but has stopped short of promising to hold a public inquiry.

"There will come a time to discuss the scale, scope and terms of a review, but our priority today must be to protect people’s lives and continue to bend the curve,” Gillian Sloggett, a spokeswoman for Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton, said in an e-mail.

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