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A staff member stands at a window as a woman tries to speak to a relative at Orchard Villa Care home, in Pickering, Ont., on April 25, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

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Ontario’s ombudsman says his investigation into how the government handled COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care homes will look at why more than 1,800 people have died and how deaths can be prevented in future, including through improved inspections.

But health care professionals specializing in wound care say they are concerned the probe will be too narrowly focused on the pandemic instead of looking at systemic staffing and training problems that have plagued the sector for decades.

In his annual report released Tuesday, Paul Dubé said his office received 800 COVID-19 related complaints on a variety of issues – including long-term care – by the end of March.

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Mr. Dubé told reporters he launched his investigation on June 1 into how the ministries of health and long-term care handled oversight of facilities after reading the report from the Canadian Armed Forces about horrific conditions in five hard-hit homes. He said his office will look at best practices around the world, including standards, inspections and compliance.

“It’s not just identifying problems, it’s proposing feasible solutions that are going to make things better in the future,” Mr. Dubé said on Tuesday.

“What is really essential right now is to get to the crux of the problem. People died in long-term care during the pandemic; why did it happen? How do we prevent that from happening again? That’s our focus.”

But Kim LeBlanc, an advanced practice nurse and academic chair of the Wound, Ostomy and Continence Institute, said she was recently interviewed by Mr. Dubé‘s office for the probe, but is concerned that questions were only focused on COVID-19.

“We’ve left our elderly to rot in long-term care. And I mean literally, some of them are getting rotting wounds,” Ms. LeBlanc told The Globe and Mail.

“What has happened during COVID-19 is the tip of the iceberg that is a prime example of how the system is failing.”

She said she would like to see more attention paid to understaffing in homes, inadequate training in infection control and wound care, as well as a lack of supplies and resources for personal support workers and nurses.

Mr. Dubé said an investigation into the whole system would probably take four to five years, and if other avenues open up during the course of his work, his office will pursue them. He said the patient ombudsman’s office, which is conducting a separate investigation, handles complaints about quality of homes. The Auditor-General will be reviewing the issue and Premier Doug Ford’s government is also set to launch an independent commission into long-term care later in July.

In his report, the ombudsman also detailed a record 6,000 complaints about correctional facilities in 2019-20, including a “substantial increase” in complaints about lockdowns.

Mr. Dubé called the conditions at the Thunder Bay District Jail “appalling” and the “most disturbing thing” that he’s seen during his four-year tenure as ombudsman. He added he’s been kept up at night thinking about how inaccessible his office was to inmates in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see the conditions in which those inmates are living,” he said.

Mr. Dubé visited the facility in December, 2019, and he said that he was left “shaken” by what he witnessed. In his report, the ombudsman detailed overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in both the Thunder Bay facility and Kenora Jail, including three or four inmates housed in a single cell.

Last year, the Thunder Bay jail was Ontario’s second-most overcrowded correctional facility, behind the Kenora Jail, according to Ontario’s Auditor-General. Both facilities exceeded 100-per-cent capacity, which is well above the Ministry of the Solicitor-General’s target of 85 per cent.

In 2017, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government committed to building a new correctional facility in Thunder Bay, a promise which was reaffirmed by Mr. Ford’s government last year, though construction on the facility has yet to begin.

Mr. Dubé said he’s reminded the ministry that “time is of the essence” to move forward with the new facility.

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